ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman (Harper Collins, 2017)

eleanor-oliphant-is-completely-fine-original-imaeufdjggmjv38wIt pays to increase your word power. I remember seeing this slogan many moons ago in a newspaper advertisement promoting a distance learning course aimed at those who frequently feel tongue-tied or inarticulate in social situations.

The promise was that a wider vocabulary would lead to greater self-confidence and would provide a vital step towards overcoming feelings of inadequacy.

The premise sounds persuasive enough but, as the fictional character of the 30-year-old Eleanor Oliphant shows, it takes more than precise elocution and fancy wordplay to win friends and influence people.

If anything, these factors make Eleanor more alone as she’s universally viewed as a freak of nature. She’s a woman who has learned to live with her scars both imaginary and actual. Her condition is summarised in the extended epigraph to the novel taken from Olivia Laing’s ‘The Lonely City’ which notes that “the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents”.

Eleanor’s gaucheness is exacerbated by a lack of knowledge about popular culture (she’s never had a TV) and rudimentary social interactions. “How are people supposed to know?”, she asks herself.

Having grown up with an over protective and, ultimately, abusive mother, pubs, clubs, beauty parlors and shopping centres are places which she enters as an outsider struggling to make sense of an alien world.

Eleanor’s ornate language is combined with rigorous sense of honesty : “I could see no point in being anything other than truthful with the world”. An example of this is when she is musing on the ritual of making wedding gift lists: “I simply fail to see how the act of legally formalizing a human relationship necessitates friends, family and co-workers upgrading the contents of their kitchen for them”.

Branded as a weirdo, she feels “unloved, unwanted and irreparably damaged” and takes solace by getting plastered on vodka every weekend. When we meet her she seems resigned to her aloneness as she reflects: “I aspire to average … I’ve been the focus of far too much attention in my time”.

She has a routine office job at a graphic design firm and when praised by her boss for not taking days off sick or using her annual leave entitlement she is quick to counter the suggestion that this due to her loyalty : “It’s not dedication. I simply have a very robust constitution and no one to go on holiday with.”

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Gail Honeyman

Her low self-esteem leads her developing a crush on an indie rock singer but true redemption comes in the unlikely form of a nerdy yet kind-hearted Raymond who is unflatteringly described as “a poorly turned out computer repair man with a range of unfortunate social habits”.

Their platonic friendship offers Eleanor a way to engage with the outside world and make slow steps towards a less isolated existence: “Noticing details, that was good. Tiny slivers of life –they all added up and helped you to feel that you, too, could be a fragment, a little piece of humanity who usefully filled a space, however minuscule”.

Eleanor knows that “loneliness is a cancer” but, fortunately, in her case it isn’t terminal. Since Honeyman’s debut novel is what The Guardian’ call an example of Up Lit we can read on safe in the knowledge that this is not a story that’s going to end in tears.

The mystery of a traumatic childhood event adds an enigmatic dimension to the plot but this is mostly an unnecessary distraction. Fortunately, the contrived storyline does not detract from the comedy and pathos that makes Eleanor Oliphant such a memorable creation.

You feel for her when she reflects that “no one had ever shown me the right way to live a life” and though she claims to have no emotional needs you can’t help willing her to find love and purpose. Her bravery in the face of adversity makes her a heroine for these times.

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