Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Rating: 5 stars

This book by Gail Honeyman was the winner of the Costa Book Awards 2017 for a first novel. And what a fine first novel it is.

Told in the first person, the narrator opens with a description of her everyday humdrum life, and I was gripped right from the outset. Eleanor Oliphant is nearly thirty and works in the accounts receivable office of a graphic design company. We know straightaway that her life has been difficult. She believes her boss, Bob, took pity on her when he employed her nine years ago: “I had a degree in Classics and no work experience to speak of, and I turned up for the interview with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm.” Clearly she’s had a difficult period in her life (to put it mildly) and now wants nothing more than a poorly paid office job and routine. Eleanor also tells us within the opening pages that her weekends are spent on her own drinking vodka, and that she speaks to her mother each Wednesday. She’s clearly lonely and troubled, but would admit to neither of these should she ever allow anyone the chance to talk to her for long enough to ask.

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Eleanor is a loner, annoyed by other people’s slovenly or imprecise use of language, keen to point out ways of saving money; now, though, having been given free tickets at work for a gig she’s felt obliged to use them and is on a mission to meet the singer in a band, whom she fantasises is “the one”. She sets about making improvements to her appearance and to her contact with modern life, teaching herself about the internet, Twitter and Instagram. Very soon we find ourselves wrapped in Eleanor’s world – the one that has gripped tightly around her for years – and the sudden changes that come about both from her mission to find out about and meet the singer, Johnnie Lomond, and from her actual meeting with the company’s IT expert Raymond Gibbons. By chance, she and Raymond get involved in the life of Sammy Thom, an elderly man whom they help when he has a fall, and his family. Bit by bit, Eleanor’s life changes and she discovers an ability to relate to people and feel an empathy she didn’t know she could ever feel.

Gail Honeyman slowly and delicately reveals the secrets of Eleanor’s past, always in Eleanor’s precise and careful voice, and describes her gradual and painful thawing and her difficultly in dealing with her own childhood secrets which she has for years hidden from herself in a tightly sealed box in her memory. She discovers that she has abilities and emotions she didn’t previously acknowledge or realise, and that she can learn to trust people and relate to them in ways she, at the outset, would have found completely impossible.

I was completely gripped by this book – I found Eleanor entirely believable and her life by turns sad and funny. At times the humour rings through so strongly that I laughed out loud, particularly at the situations in which she was placing herself in her quest for Johnnie. Her growing compassion for her fellow workers and other people she meets, such as Raymond’s widowed mother, rings true throughout. This is a beautifully written tale about loneliness, secrets, relationships, and trust. A well-deserved prizewinner.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

elizabeth is missingI reckon that many fiction publishers have latched onto the fact that there are a lot of very keen readers for novels which switch between different times and different narrators. In the case of Elizabeth is Missing, it’s actually the same narrator – Maud – but in a voice much altered by the passage of time, so that the effect is almost of two distinctly different people.

Or so it seems at first. The more you read, the more you see the similarities between the younger and older person. Maud as the older narrator is suffering from dementia and her voice and obsessions have become simple and child-like. She can no longer remember what she’s done earlier in the day, but parts of the distant past have become crystal clear to her. Maud is now obsessed with trying to find her friend Elizabeth, whom she is convinced is missing through some ill treatment. Maud repeatedly goes over the same ground (literally), going back and forth to Elizabeth’s house and, apparently, to the police station to report her disappearance. Maud writes herself notes to try to aid her memory and to keep a record of the important facts she’s convinced she’s discovering.

Maud’s present-day journeys awaken memories of her sister Sukey and of her efforts to find her when she went missing many decades before. In her search for Elizabeth, Maud discovers the truth, or at least a part of the truth, about Sukey’s disappearance. The younger Maud had become ill and was protected by her parents, and now that she is old it is her daughter and granddaughter, Helen and Katy, who are trying to protect her. Time and time again we see struggles within families with different generations attempting to look after parents living in difficult situations or fighting mental instability or infirmity. Young Maud’s family had a lodger, Douglas, whose home had been bombed out and who was secretly trying to protect and look after his elderly “mad” mother, while also repeatedly hunting for Sukey.

All the characters in Elizabeth is Missing are coping with the loss of a loved one and/or the loss of possessions and a home. Sukey’s husband (and possible nemesis) Frank, goes from being surrounded by an abundance of possessions – so many that it’s hard to move around his house – to having nothing and being reduced to living on the outside of society. Maud, too, both as a child and as an old woman hoards possessions, whether these be oddments which she regards as clues found while walking and looking for her sister or for Elizabeth, or tins of peaches. Like Frank, like the bombed-out Douglas and like Elizabeth, she is finally inevitably reduced to having to have very few possessions.

Emma Healey deals with these ideas with clarity and sympathy, without ever losing sight of her current-day or older characters or plots. To anyone with older relatives or with close friends or family members with mental health problems, this can be a difficult book to read, being at times painfully honest about the problems faced in a relationship where communication has often broken down to the extent that one side no longer recognises the identity of the other. This is the well-deserved winner of the Costa First Novel Award for 2014, and I look forward to reading more from this terrific new talent.

Rating: 5 stars

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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