By Kamalini Natesan
Title: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Author: Gail Honeyman
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2017
Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine caught my fancy, not just because it was the chosen book of the month, with my Book Club. I had more than a hunch that I had a good book in my kindle waiting to be read, having bought it over six months ago. I read Vasudha Chandana Gulati’s review, someone whose opinion on books I dearly value, and quickly bought it. Her review had certainly done justice to the book, and here I am airing my own.
The book enchanted me from the second chapter, when I read this paragraph, which among many that had me grinning, thoughtful, and stirred:
He pulled at the collar of his shirt, as though trying to free his enormous Adam’s apple from its constraints. He had the look of a gazelle or an impala, one of those boring beige animals with large, round eyes on the sides of its face. The kind of animal that always gets eaten by the leopard in the end.
This is an example of how Eleanor constantly thinks, judges, analyses people around her, a lot of it at face value. It is a novel replete with humorous metaphors, personifications, and similes. Eleanor reminding us repeatedly through her plain-as-day, in-your-face wisdom how we live after all. She’s full and yet she’s broken, and devises a way of living through daily machinations with unerring regularity: timing herself, feeding herself with the exact same food, and drinking Vodka, plenty of it. She is predictable, honest, and robotic almost. This is what lends her a sense of peace. This is what her experiences have rendered her – a being with almost no wants, and one who is ‘completely fine’. She not only appears OCD, but autistic in a way, saying it out like it is.
This is how Eleanor describes a favourite plant she calls Polly:
My beautiful Polly, prosaically described as a parrot plant, sometimes referred to as a Congo cockatoo plant, but always known to me, in her full Latinate glory as Impatiens niamniamensis. I say it out loud, often…..It’s like kissing, the ‘m’s forcing your lips together…. She came with me from my childhood bedroom, survived the foster placements and children’s homes and, like me, she’s still here. I’ve looked after her, tended to her, picked her up and repotted her when she was dropped or thrown. She likes light, and she’s thirsty. …I talk to her sometimes; I’m not ashamed to admit it. 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.
The loneliness, admittedly, comes to her in waves. The story gradually builds up a character with deep-seated fears, lurking in the abyss of her being. Some strong negative experiences have worked on her psyche, which are alluded to occasionally. Through her growing years in a variety of foster homes, she teaches herself to be fine, completely fine. She buries the ‘before’ in the cavern of her being, and shuts the door on the darkness. It does not bother her at all, until Sammy, a character who falls by the road, is introduced, and this is how she and Raymond strike up an unlikely friendship, willy-nilly.
In the meantime, early in the book, Eleanor falls in love with a musician and builds a life around him, never having actually met him. When her mind’s creation meets reality, the world crashes around her. It is only then that, with the help of Raymond-from-work, does she arise and is forced to confront those demons that had lain dormant. She begins her journey with a therapist, whom she starts off by dismissing. Eventually, she is made to walk through her past, delve into it, and emerge as someone more ‘normal’ and far lighter, having shed the weight of compressed grief.
In the ‘after’, Eleanor embraces this newness with glee, and Raymond, a true friend, watches and applauds. So does the reader, beaming happily, with tears escaping the corner of one’s eyes every once in a while. It is Raymond – clumsy smoker, unkempt for the better part, with terrible table manners – with whom Eleanor’s unwilling relationship turns into a life-altering one. He saves her from self-destruction.
As one has known, not all is ever lost. If there’s even one who believes in us, and loves us, it is enough to bring us back from the dead, as it were.
Honeyman writes of Raymond: “I think there are a lot of Raymonds in the world – ordinary, kind, decent men who don’t often get featured in fiction.”
After arriving at the end of the book, I just sat and looked at Eleanor, sitting across me, and said, “Well done you!” Surreal eh! She had been with me for three days, and I with her. We had bonded.
Honeyman is a fine storyteller, weaving it all like an expert in her debut novel. She has breathed life into an idiosyncratic Eleanor, making us fall in love with her. It is certainly worth a read.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is available here.
Kamalini Natesan is a teacher of French and Spanish. She is a trained singer (Hindustani), and regularly jams with a group of musicians. She has been blogging since 2013. Travelogues, book reviews, and poetry are her favorite genres. Her short stories and articles have been published in magazines such as Life Positive, New Woman and Parenting. Recently, her essay about her son, entitled ‘Probing the Dermis,’ was published in a book, Twilight’s Children: Chronicles of an Uncommon Life (Readomania).