It was announced today that Scottish writer Gail Honeyman’s darkly comic debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, has won the Costa Book Prize in the “Best First Novel of 2017” category. I read it when it came out last spring, and despite a shaky start I really enjoyed it.
After reading the first few chapters I figured I knew where the book was going and decided to abandon it. I came back to it a few days later though and I’m glad I did. It took me into some very unexpected territory.
Eleanor, who narrates the novel, is a dreary and unadventurous 29-year-old finance clerk in Glasgow whose life is in a very deep rut. She does her job diligently, shuns any communal office activities and spends her weekends alone with her bottles of vodka waiting for Monday morning to come. Her superior attitude and minimal social skills make her the constant butt of her co-workers’ jokes.
At first, Honeyman has a lot of fun at Eleanor’s expense, having her humorously misread other peoples’ intentions and spout haughtily misanthropic observations, such as: “I’ve yet to find a genre of music I enjoy; it’s basically audible physics, waves and energized particles, and like most sane people, I have no interest in physics.”
Honeyman presents Eleanor as generally clueless, not just about how to engage in interpersonal relationships, but in her relationship to the basics of the modern world that everyone else is immersed in. Here, for example, is her description of her favourite mug, which she totally misunderstands:
“I purchased it in a charity shop some years ago, and it has a photograph of a moon-faced man. He is wearing a brown leather blouson. Along the top, in strange yellow font, it says ‘Top Gear’. I don’t profess to understand this mug. It holds the perfect amount of vodka, however, thereby obviating the need for frequent refills.”
Worse still, Eleanore has developed a sort of delayed school girl crush on a minor pop musician. She nurses unrealistic fantasies about him and after careful consideration makes the pragmatic decision to transform herself into a more attractive mate. (“The goal, ultimately, was successful camouflage as a human woman,” she says.) This transformation includes a hilarious introduction to the mysteries of the bikini wax.
This winking coyness is what made me first put the book aside. I assumed readers would soon find Eleanor being mentored by a kindly friend who would have her diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome or something like that and that a newly medicated and therapized Eleanor would blossom and find true love in a happily-ever-after ending.
But I returned to the book because of some clues that promised a darker, more complex storyline. For instance, Eleanor has burn scars on half of her face from a childhood fire that she prefers not to remember and has a weekly phone conversation with her “Mummy,” a truly horrifying and vile character who is “incarcerated,” either in prison, it seems, or an insane asylum.
Eleanore becomes more candid about her own loneliness and isolation. Depression, she says, is a “fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted.”
We gradually learn more about why Eleanor is the way she is. Her solitude and dogged routine are a defence against a tragic past. I was cheered to find the barriers of Eleanor’s carefully constructed life begin to crumble after she meets Raymond, an unkempt but sweet-natured IT tech in her office, who begins to draw her out into the wider world, without her quite recognizing what is happening.
The result is a sweetly funny friendship that has the messy feel of reality to it. As the novel progresses the early cheap laughs take a back seat and we see Eleanor in all her wounded complexity.
She might not get the fairy tale ending that a less assured writer might have given us, but she does blossom and in the end can say “‘Essentially, though, in all the ways that matter…I’m fine now. Fine,’ I repeated, stressing the word because, at last, it was true.” A sad and funny novel well worth reading to the end.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, Penguin Random House