Life as an outsider
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.
is out now