Read from May 5thto June 1st2018
I understand that Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fineis the first novel Gail Honeyman has published. As a debut, it is a very interesting novel indeed, with its fresh and lively voice that leaves the readers with a smile on their lips after closing the book.
I must confess I have had some trouble in establishing its genre, though. To label it chicklit seemed to me a little unfair, since this label carries a soupcon of superficiality, of light reading. The author of the Kirkus review appears to have encountered the same problem, calling it “part comic novel, part emotional thriller, and part love story” – a little too many parts, in my opinion, from which at least one an exaggeration and/ or wishful thinking. Nevertheless, it could be all three (and a few others), if you encompass them in a satirical approach, with a touch of neo-modernist psychological (melo)drama (hum, more and more confusing, told you, not so easy to classify).
Anyway (and all the reviews I’ve browsed agree with this), the most savurous ingredient of the novel is its humor, its gentle satire of the contemporary society, with all its political correctness, mating rituals, smugness of the public image and so on:
I’d made my legs black, and my hair blond. I’d lengthened and darkened my eyelashes, dusted a flush of pink onto my cheeks and painted my lips a shade of dark red which was rarely found in nature. I should, by rights, look less like a human woman than I’d ever done, and yet it seemed that this was the most acceptable, the most appropriate appearance that I’d ever made before the world.
Eleanor Oliphant’s charm springs precisely from the fact that she is so different, with her pixie-like appearance – a little fairy who, although she looks attentively around her, does not completely understand the world she however learnt so much about. The narrative follows her efforts to comprehend the society and fit in it by mimicking its rules, which leads to little scenes like this one, hilarious and touching at the same time:
The barman was well over six feet tall and had created strange, enormous holes in his earlobes by inserting little black plastic circles in order to push back the skin. For some reason, I was reminded of my shower curtain.
This comforting thought of home gave me the courage to examine his tattoos, which snaked across his neck and down both arms. The colours were very beautiful, and the images were dense and complex. How marvellous to be able to read someone’s skin, to explore the story of his life across his chest, his arms, the softness at the back of his neck. The barman had roses and a treble clef, a cross, a woman’s face... so much detail, so little unadorned flesh.
The dark side of the story is not bad either, the narrative being often saved from melodrama by the same quality of the voice that keeps its involuntary humour even in the most traumatic moments of her life:
I slowly opened one eye—it was gummed shut—and saw that the living room was unchanged, the frog pouf staring back at me. Was I alive? I hoped so, but only because if this was the location of the afterlife, I’d be lodging an appeal immediately.
So true is the narrative voice that I must confess I was amused even by some overused jokes, like in the scene in which the heroine, drunk and looking a mess, opens the door to a stupefied Raymond, who exclaims “Jesus Christ!” and to whom she politely introduces herself in turn as “Eleanor Oliphant”.
To conclude, I would say that the strongest points of the novel are its genuine humour, the unreliable narrator and the social satire. On the other hand the book has some weak points too, like the improbability of the storyline (everything falls too conveniently into place, the heroine being suddenly absorbed into the whirl of the society after a lifetime of solitude), the commercial twist of the narrative towards the end (Evil as a reality was more convincing for me than Evil as a ghost) and the occasional slip into melodrama:
I have been waiting for death all my life. I do not mean that I actively wish to die, just that I do not really want to be alive. Something had shifted now, and I realized that I didn’t need to wait for death. I didn’t want to. I unscrewed the bottle and drank deeply.
Overall however, for any reader with a need to counter the absurd of existence with a wry laugh, Gail Honeyman’s novel is, to say so, completely fine.