Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Harper Collins , 2017, 342 p.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine cover

This novel is divided into three sections, the very long Good Days, the shorter Bad Days and the even shorter Better Days. Viewpoint character (and narrator) Eleanor Oliphant is a loner who affects to be precise and fastidious, with supposedly little grasp of cultural norms, a bit of a joke to her work colleagues. But she sends herself to sleep at the weekend with a couple of bottles of vodka.

Eleanor Oliphant is, of course, far from fine. It is apparent from very early on that her narration is likely to be unreliable – the vodka alone would suggest that – but Eleanor’s past is obviously very troubled indeed. Her abusive, and abusing, mother talks to her once a week over the phone from prison. The crime she committed we don’t know until much later (but a series of hints, subtle and otherwise, the biggest being the fact of Eleanor’s facial scarring, allows us to guess) and she is responsible for many of Eleanor’s attitudes to society, her peers, officialdom and herself. It is her mother’s inner voice that Eleanor hears when she is considering any course of action.

It’s a fine line to tread as an author where the reader knows that bit more about what might be going on than the narrator seems to, an even finer one when the narrator is hiding things from herself (and therefore necessarily from us.) By and large Honeyman succeeds in this, though.

Eleanor has conceived a liking for, an attachment to, singer Johnnie Lomond, whom she thinks might be the one to make her whole. She has, of course, never met him; so has no idea of his character. Into her orbit comes the IT man at her workplace, Raymond, who to Eleanor’s eyes is slovenly in dress and appearance and repugnant in habits due to his smoking. (Drinking vodka to excess seems to be all right, but smoking isn’t.) Nevertheless, Raymond and she begin to go out for lunch occasionally. It never crosses the narrative’s mind that this may be a prelude to more than friendship (but then Eleanor is obsessed by Mr J Lomond.)

When Raymond teases out some details of her past she denies it was so bad and says she thinks herself lucky because, after her mother was off the scene, she was looked after by adults. That did not stop her from again suffering abuse – mental, physical and sexual, mercifully briefly described – by a boyfriend she had at University.

Perhaps the crucial point of the novel is when Raymond and Eleanor witness the collapse in the street of an oldish man called Sammy, to whose aid they come, calling an ambulance and accompanying him to the hospital. In the aftermath of this they become almost part of Sammy’s family.

Her inevitable breakdown comes and Eleanor starts to see a therapist. Initially reluctant to reveal anything of herself she eventually lets her guard down and we learn the details of her childhood trauma.

Or do we? We only have Eleanor’s word for it that those events as described to us are true. It is a testament to Honeyman’s handling of the narrative (a few slips in Eleanor/Honeyman’s precision aside) that even after the revelations there is still a niggling doubt as to who was responsible. It remains possible that hidden deep inside her there is an alternative, much darker, explanation for the tragedy that befell Eleanor’s family. After all Eleanor Oliphant is an unreliable narrator, and quite possibly, disingenuous.

Pedant’s corner:- “bon mots” (bons mots,) “Mr J Lomond Esq.” (the correct description is either Mr J Lomond, or, J Lomond Esq.) snuck (x2, sneaked,) Mearns’ (Mearns’s.) “None of his muscles were visible” (none … was visible,) “there were a variety of” (there was a variety of,) “at the hairdressers” (hairdresser’s,) sprung (sprang,) crystalizing (crystallising.)

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

free hit counter script