Published by Harper Collins 2017 | Fiction
Very rarely will a story make me actually weep uncontrollably, and also snort out loud with laughter. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – the debut novel by Scottish author Gail Honeyman – is one of the few.
The narrator Eleanor Oliphant, dowsed with peculiarities and prone to social faux pas, is genuinely hilarious. But as we gradually unpick the 29-year-old’s empty, traumatised life, she’s equally heartbreaking.
Despite regularly insisting to herself and to a social worker – who visits semi-annually, we later find out why – that she enjoys her orderly, mundane existence, it’s abundantly clear from page one that she is anything but ‘completely fine’.
Her days play out with monotonous similarity. Each Friday, following a week in her uninspiring office job, she heats up a supermarket pizza alone in her tired flat, drinks two bottles of cheap vodka over the weekend, and speaks to nobody until Monday morning comes round again.
Profound loneliness is never far away: “When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes, if only for proof of life,” she says.
Although intelligent and articulate, she avoids social interactions and limits her communication with work colleagues to the bare minimum.
They think she’s odd, which she is, and this is never more brilliantly on display than when she attempts to navigate social situations. One among many examples was when she was offered a drink.
“No thank you,” she said. “I don’t want to accept a drink from you, because then I would be obliged to purchase one for you in return, and I’m afraid I’m simply not interested in spending two drinks’ worth of time with you.”
Nothing much about Eleanor – not even her face which is horribly scarred – is normal.
And as the story unfolds it becomes apparent that there’s something sinister behind her quirks, which seems to stem from Eleanor’s mother. Every Wednesday evening, Eleanor takes 15 minutes to speak on the phone with ‘Mummy’, who is, it seems, confined to an asylum or perhaps prison. Their conversations are never easy, as Mummy is nasty to the point of seeming unhinged.
Serendipity intervenes in Eleanor’s monotony when she’s reluctantly persuaded by a kind-hearted work colleague, Raymond, to help an old man, Sammy, who has collapsed in the street.
This becomes a catalyst for Eleanor to be gradually drawn into the orbit of other people – including Raymond and Sammy – whose small kindnesses show her that a different way of living may be possible.
Slowly, as the kindnesses lift her out of loneliness, Eleanor allows herself to confront her complex past, piece by ruined, repressed piece.
The beauty of Honeyman’s narrative is in the tender way she deals with Eleanor’s loneliness and the transformative effect of small kindnesses, leaving you feeling both intense sorrow and warmth. Her characters are completely convincing in all their various flaws and neuroses, and she strikes a wonderful balance in tempering the seriousness of Eleanor’s trauma with the comic relief of her social missteps.
Published in 2017, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine earned Honeyman numerous awards, including the 2017 Costa First Novel Award and the “Debut Book of the Year” and “Overall Winner” awards in the 2018 British Book Awards. It is expected to be adapted for film by Reese Witherspoon’s media company Hello Sunshine.