Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.
Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.
I love it so much when a book lives up to its promise. For me, the novel that is a bestseller and a satisfying read is only too rare, but Eleanor Oliphant succeeds. The debut novel by Gail Honeyman (a fellow Lucy Cavendish shortlistee – no pressure!) follows the titular character. I came to Eleanor not really knowing what to expect apart that it was a book about loneliness. Eleanor is rather odd but you work out pretty quickly that most of her problems stem from her childhood. Once a week Mummy calls, from an undisclosed location. As a reader you know what Eleanor knows which is that Mummy did something bad and that wherever she is, she can’t ever leave. It doesn’t stop her from getting in touch once a week to taunt her daughter though, and as much as Eleanor dreads the calls, she cannot let go of these weekly interactions.
At work she just gets on with the same job she’s had for nine years and avoids social interactions with her colleagues as much as possible. It’s only the arrival of new IT guy, Raymond, that shakes her out of her faithful routine. An accident results in her being forced into new and unusual situations, and Eleanor comes to believe that perhaps she does need to be more open to new experiences.
I so enjoyed this book that I found myself rationing it out, not wanting it to end. This is mainly because Eleanor is such a great character. Seeing a familiar world through eyes who view everything slightly differently is so refreshing. She is an open narrator, letting the reader see every flaw (which, thanks to Mummy’s influence, she is constantly aware of). She is also highly aware of the flaws of others, criticising Raymond’s dress sense and table manners which fall far lower than Mummy’s expectations. There is a particular scene on a busy bus which made me cackle (partly because in that moment I knew exactly where she was coming from). She describes her usual game of selecting the best person to sit next to. Then this happens:
…he walked straight past me and sat on the other side of the bus, next to a short, rough-looking man in a sports jacket. I couldn’t believe it! Two people got on at the next stop – one went upstairs, the other, once again, eschewed the spare seat next to me and walked towards the back of the bus, where, I noticed when I turned around to look, she seated herself next to a man with no socks on. His bare ankles looked distressingly white above his oxblood leather brogues, which he had teamed with green jogging bottoms. A madman.
This is a character led novel, but there is also the mystery of what happened to Eleanor as a child. It is always clear that her present state of mind is a direct consequence of abuse. Gradually Honeyman reveals details as Eleanor realises that to move forward she must revisit her past. This is a dark tale at times, but humour is never far away and I found it a hopeful narrative. Eleanor is one of those characters who will stay with you for a long time after you’ve turned the last page.