Life as an out­sider

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Some­times, a novel in­tro­duces a char­ac­ter so be­liev­able, so mov­ing and so orig­i­nal that there is a feel­ing of real loss when you turn the fi­nal page.

I reread the end­ing of Gail Honey­man’s won­der­ful de­but sev­eral times, just to spend a few more min­utes in the up­set­ting, yet up­lift­ing or­bit of Eleanor Oliphant.

She will make you laugh, cry, re­coil in em­bar­rass­ment and re­assess your own re­la­tion­ships – some­times all within the same para­graph. We meet Oliphant, 30, in her of­fice, de­scrib­ing her pro­saic work­ing week and her lunch of su­per­mar­ket-meal-deal sand­wiches, which she eats alone. She is a so­cially awk­ward, slightly dowdy char­ac­ter who is the sub­ject of unkind gos­sip. Her or­dered, mat­ter-of-fact tone is so strange – it makes the reader also feel that there must be some­thing wrong with her.

And then there is this crush­ing line about Oliphant’s con­ver­sa­tions with a pot plant in her flat, where she lives alone: “When the si­lence and alone­ness press down and around me, crush­ing me, carv­ing me like ice, I need to speak aloud some­times, if only for proof of life.”

Eleanor Oliphant Is Com­pletely Fine is ab­so­lutely bril­liant at de­pict­ing and de­scrib­ing lone­li­ness. It slowly be­comes clear that Oliphant’s odd be­hav­iour and de­meanour is a cop­ing mech­a­nism. Her mother tells her once a week she is use­less, the one part­ner she had was vi­o­lently abu­sive and she spent time in care. So there is no one for her to bounce off, no one to give her mean­ing­ful ex­pe­ri­ences.

Un­til, that is, she as­sists a man who has col­lapsed in the street, with the help of a scruffy IT as­sis­tant called Ray­mond. It’s not as if Oliphant needs sav­ing by a man, as such – she just needs to know some­body is look­ing out for her. Bub­bling along un­der­neath all this is the mys­tery of her iso­la­tion, which is con­nected with a scar run­ning down her face. It might sound clichéd that the ter­ri­ble child­hood truth she has hid­den comes out dur­ing a coun­selling ses­sion, but it feels re­al­is­tic in this con­text.

Well be­fore then, you will be in Oliphant’s cor­ner. There is a mo­ment where she plucks up the courage for a hair­cut makeover.

When she fi­nally sees her­self in the mir­ror, a tear runs down the side of her nose as she tells the hair­dresser: “Thank you for mak­ing me shiny.”

This novel is an ob­ject les­son that if we stop to think, we can all make some­one feel that way.

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