Book review: Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine, HarperCollins (2017)
Warning: contains multiple plot spoilers from the start
This is a popular book. It has won prizes. The lustrous Jane Garvey, no less, praised it on Woman’s hour. For the first two thirds, I found it extraordinary―but for reasons I hope would horrify Ms Honeyman and her devotees.
The protagonist, a woman in her thirties, is clearly suffering from both post traumatic stress disorder and serious attachment disorder—both undiagnosed and untreated. She has chosen to deal with it (in the absence of any professional intervention) by locking herself down. (It is odd that not one of the social workers with whom she has supposedly been in contact for twenty years has suggested any therapeutic intervention, given they know the aetiology of her condition.)
She goes to work, does her work, goes home. At the weekends, she drinks two bottles of vodka. She has no social life. No family. However, as the title says, she believes she is ‘completely fine’. And, at a superficial level, she really believes this. She narrates the book and, just occasionally, allows us to see that a little insight fights to the surface before being repressed again.
As I read it, over and over a single thought just kept coming back to me: this is the most sadistic book I have read in a long time. Gail Honeyman creates a fictional character for the sole purpose of mocking her, which she does relentlessly, pausing only to invite the reader to join in.
For starters, the name. Of course, Oliphant is a respectable, if unusual, surname. But Eleanor Oliphant? Too close to ‘Nellie the elephant’ for me. (And ‘Gail Honeyman’, by the way? Gale’s honey is, as Eleanor would say, a popular comestible.) Eleanor (spelt differently) and Marianne are the sisters in Sense and sensibility, Elinor representing sense (rationality) and Marianne sensibility (emotion). Are we supposed to infer that, with the death of Eleanor’s sister, Marianne, all emotion dies in Eleanor? If so, this is Ms Honeyman’s little joke: the idea doesn’t strike Eleanor, even though Sense and sensibility is Eleanor’s second favourite book.
Eleanor is then given a tone of voice, at once knowing and arch, yet (we are supposed to believe) entirely ignorant of anything in the real world. Much hilarity ensues at Eleanor’s expense.
For example, early on the book, she decides to have a ‘bikini wax’, a procedure about which she is utterly innocent (pages 13-17). Of course, she chooses at random a style which involves complete depilation. She’s appalled, but we are invited to laugh at her. (This incident is never referred to again, so I guess that an editor decided it was worth getting in a cheap laugh early.)
There’s the episode where she goes to her GP because of a bad back which she diagnoses as being down to her breasts. Having weighed them on the kitchen scales, she is concerned they may be too heavy (7). This story seems to be there to establish that she stockpiles over-the-counter analgesics, but this isn’t referred to again either.
And the pizza delivered to her door. ‘I wondered how they managed with the black pepper. Would the man bring a pepper mill with him? Surely he wouldn’t grind it over the pizza while he stood on the doorstep?…’ (21). These concerns are presented as real ones for Eleanor. We are laughing at her, not with her.
A lengthy part of the book circulates around Eleanor’s obsession with an incompetent pop entertainer. This personality is used as the catalyst which gets Eleanor to improve her looks, starting with her pubic hair, thereby becoming more attractive.
Of course, we realise he’s useless a long way before she does. So we can laugh at her repeatedly making stupid statements, doing foolish things albeit this foolishness arises from a particular appalling childhood trauma and an appalling mother. Hilarious.
In a frankly credulity-stretching episode, she finds this pop entertainer in her local Tesco’s. Stationing herself almost behind him at the checkout (well, we’ve all done that), she is interested to learn he is buying orange juice ‘with bits’, but cannot imagine what these bits are. I do not believe a single woman in her thirties, a habituée of Tesco’s, doesn’t know what the bits are in orange juice (156).
I say that we are encouraged to laugh at her (the book is marketed as humorous) because Eleanor is set up by the author as an “exceptionally bright and articulate child” in a school report (61) which Honeyman contrives that Eleanor sees. Therefore it is ‘funny’ that, given how brainy she is, she ought to understand some very basic stuff, but she doesn’t. It’s not her absence of experiences―which would understandably have arisen from a self-inflicted sheltered life and which might have given rise to here naivety and innocence—it’s that her responses are coming from a place which, in anyone else, we would have called stupidity. Honeyman makes sure we laugh at Eleanor by giving her an arch and pompous choice of words which makes her response to events ridiculous.
And so it goes on. Honeyman makes Eleanor trash herself over and over. The trope becomes tedious: how would anyone, dear reader, imagine that someone didn’t know X? Well, Eleanor doesn’t know it! So, let’s have a good laugh at this hugely damaged, unhappy woman with serious mental health problems.
I thought we had moved on from the stage of laughing and pointing at ‘loonies’, but apparently not.
Interweaved into this story so far is the frankly remarkable Raymond. Honeyman is careful to make Eleanor describe the attractive aspects of his personality, though they are slow to reveal themselves, amongst all his physical shortcomings and his behavioural inexactitudes.
Early on, they both witness an old man fall over in the street and go to help him. This event serves to unite the two in some shambolic way.
The Eleanor/Raymond anti-romance, which unrolls over most of the book, is well told. I was entirely convinced by the pacing and by the responses of the two characters to each other, once you accept the frankly unlikely characters in the first place. But Honeyman has Eleanor sink too often into mawkishness and self-pity.
The thing about Raymond is that he is nice. And the old man, Sammy, whom they visit in hospital, is nice. And Sammy’s family is nice. And Raymond’s mum is nice. And Eleanor’s boss is nice. Even Mr Dewan, who runs the corner shop and only gets a bit part in the book, is nice. After the mockery of Eleanor, this is a second big problem with the book. Everyone is nice.
I swear that no-one except Eleanor (whose sarcasm is the only redeeming feature of the book) at any point has a harsh word to say about anyone. OK, Eleanor’s colleagues are a bit bitchy at the start, but they are just a faceless chorus. Raymond lets Laura, a relative of Sammy, sit on his knee. But he reassures Eleanor that Laura is ‘too high maintenance’―a term Eleanor, of course, has never heard before―so no danger there then.
But in the real world noone is unremittingly nice. Still less is everyone nice. I get that Honeyman’s point is that a little kindness goes a long way―I’m with Derren Brown when he said, ‘The single most valuable human trait, the one quality every schoolchild and adult should be taught to nurture, is, quite simply, kindness’ *―but it wouldn’t have hurt the author to make at least some of her characters vaguely believable. People can be kind and still exhibit less than flattering characteristics. In this book, the worst you can say about someone is that he isn’t wearing socks.
Honeyman doesn’t seem to understand she has created a character with PTSD and an attachment disorder, so the scenes with the therapist don’t convince. It is a remarkably brief series of sessions. (Though the bit where the therapist appears to be standing immediately the other side of the door when Eleanor knocks certainly does. Do they all do that?)
The book attempts to show that, once she attends to her nails and gets her hair cut, she becomes acceptable and accepted by her colleagues (presumably she doesn’t show them the bikini waxing). This may well happen in reality but the way it is described here is trite.
The revelation at the last minute that Mummy has been dead all along really doesn’t ring true and is unnecessary. If Honeyman is interested in the consequences―the good, if unintended, consequences―of a random act of kindness, she doesn’t need to make one of the characters suddenly become imaginary.
And, given the unremitting niceness of everyone else, Mummy made a good, if wholly in-credible, foil. The Eleanor who is narrating (as opposed to the Eleanor about whom she is narrating) knows that Mummy didn’t survive and, as the narrator, she is being disingenuous in presenting Mummy as if she had.
Mummy’s absence is signalled earlier on. When her potplant dies, Eleanor writes, ‘The plant, though, was the only living link with my childhood… the only thing, apart from me, that had survived’ (261).
Eleanor’s insight at the time the events are happening is inconsistent to say the least. The narrator, telling the story at some distance in time (I assume) from the events, has clearly recovered enough to gain a lot more insight: ‘He looked like he was going to cry―it must be all the wine. It does make people overly emotional, so they say. I could feel the unasked question hovering between us like a ghost’ (247).
Because Honeyman refuses to give Eleanor any insight (except when she does give her insight, eg, immediately above), the whole thing is superficial. That’s not to say that, in this respect, it differs markedly form much contemporary fiction (though little of it manages the same levels of viciousness). But one does wonder how the Eleanor we have left at the end of the book is capable of writing the book in the first place.
With thanks to fellow members of Gloucester book club for some of these insights.
* Derren Brown, Confessions of a conjuror, Transworld (2010)
© 2019 Jeremy Marchant
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