I was wary of reading this book because I was told it was partly about loneliness and what it does to us and that sounds as much fun as reviewing the final stages of terminal cancer. I picked it up because it was consistently described as being well written.
It's more than well written. It's pretty much perfect.
There is so much understanding here of how day to day life really is, how we struggle with it, how loneliness colonises our lives like a carcinogenic mould until our lives become literally unbearable and how important small acts of kindness and regular honest contact are.
The book is written entirely from Eleanor Oliphant's point of view. It's a point of view quite unique to her, a product of her history, her isolation and the pressure of a trauma that she can only cope with by living a life as free from emotion as she can manage.
If you've ever been the unpopular person, the nutter, the lonely one, the one who genuinely doesn't get parties and small talk and the obsession with pointless television, then there are many points in this book where you will find yourself cringing with muscle-memory recognition of embarrassment and hurt. You can see exactly how Eleanor misreads things or behaves in ways that make other people dislike or dismiss or ridicule her. You know that she knows she's not easily likeable and that she has no idea what to do about it other than endure.
Eleanor starts from a worse place than most of us but many of us have walked parts of this path.
Eleanor is strong. So strong that she rejects help and deals on her own with what has happened to her and how it shapes her daily life. Eleanor is also vulnerable, fragile and in pain. Yet she makes the most of it. She tries to have a life. Most of the time.
In the first half of the book I became acclimatised to Eleanor's coping strategies, her constraints and her small acts of courage and began to hope for her, When bad times arrived they were devastating. There's no sugar-coating. No ducking of the issues. Just a bleak confrontation of reality. It is hard to take but it is worth taking because it feels true.
When better times arrive, not yet good times but much better than the times that preceded them, I could see and feel the slow, painful progress Eleanor was making. Her sessions with a counsellor are wonderfully done. I've always been resistant to the concept of psychotherapy but I understand what is being done here. It's imperfect and limited but so much better than the alternative.
The writing is excellent. The characterisation is both subtle and clear. Modern life is closely observed and then relayed through the unique filter of Eleanor's perception. The emotions in the book are strong and real but not broadcast in soundbites or flash cards. If this was a movie, there would be no dramatic music, just close-ups of people being people.
This is one of my favourite books this year. I went to see what other Gail Honeyman books I could buy and then discovered that this is her debut novel. That's quite hard to take in. How do you come up with something this good from a standing start?
I listened to the audiobook version which is beautifully done. You can hear a sample below
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