No one’s been in my flat this year apart from service professionals; I’ve not voluntarily invited another human being across the threshold, except to read the meter…It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination.
At the office where Eleanor has worked in accounts for nine years, she’s an outsider and a bit of joke. People talk about how weird she is behind her back. It’s at a works do that she falls in love from afar with the singer of a band. She has to wait until the Monday to find out more about him as she doesn’t have a computer at home. Her work computer crashes and this is how she meets Raymond Gibbons, a down to earth kind man who smells of cooking and cigarettes.
He loped off with a strange bouncy walk, springing too hard on the balls of his feet. A lot of unattractive men seem to walk in such a manner, I’ve noticed. I’m sure the training shoes don’t help.
Eleanor struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. She is a creature of habit, wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day, buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend and is a bit of a loner.
I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. I’m a sole survivor – I’m Eleanor Oliphant. I don’t need anyone else – there’s no big hole in my life, no missing part of my own particular puzzle. I am a self-contained entity. That’s what I’ve always told myself, at any rate.
Closed off, alone and unfamiliar with the world, the reader discovers Eleanor has spent time in care and has to endure visits from social workers who stare at her scars.
Mummy always told me that I am ugly, freakish, vile. She’s done so from my earliest years, even before I acquired my scars.
Though she still speaks to the caustic-tongued “Mummy”, who the reader suspects is incarcerated possibly in prison or an asylum, every week on the same day at the same time.
One simple act of kindness pierces the walls Eleanor has built around herself. And with the start of a friendship with Raymond, she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – whilst at the same time, searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life.
I’d tried so hard, but something about me just didn’t fit. There was, it seemed, no Eleanor-shaped social hole for me to slot into.
After they witness an old man who falls in the street, Raymond invites Eleanor to visit him in hospital. Whilst getting ready she ponders whether she could become a musician’s muse and this in turn leads her to reflect on her image both internal and external and we learn that Eleanor survived a fire and emerged like a ‘little phoenix’.
Despite her compulsive routine, it’s the obsession with the imaginary love of her life, a singer, whom she hopes “Mummy” will approve of, that leads Eleanor to start to make changes to her appearance. She decides to make herself over from the outside and work her way in. After a visit to a beauty parlour and much pain – something she tells us she is familiar with – she is horrified at the Hollywood bikini wax, this was not the answer she was looking for.
Humour works to reduce the pathos and strangeness of a character who speaks with a comical and strange mix of archaic Victorian primness and precision. Food is also an issue for Eleanor and she remembers being invited to a friend’s house where they had fish fingers and beans which she had never seen before. And when asked by the family what she usually ate, recited a rather precocious list of cuisine.
Asparagus veloute with a poached duck egg and hazelnut oil. Bouillabaisse and homemade rouille. Honey-glazed poussin with celeriac fondants. Fresh truffles when in season, shaved over cepts and buttered linguine…Of course after I was taken into care, I rapidly became acquainted with a new culinary family; Aunt Bessie, Captain Birdseye and Uncle Ben all featured regularly…It was one of the ways in which my old life and new life differed.
Hilarious and tragic; Eleanor’s past relationship with food highlights how mealtimes, food, or even just new living patterns can for some young people in care can be torture where everything feels strange and is so different from whatever routine they have been used to.
‘Being in care wasn’t always much fun. I mean, it was completely fine, I had everything I needed, but it wasn’t all picnics and pillow fights…They call young people in care “looked after”. But every child should be “looked after”…it really ought to be the default.’
The mystery of what really happened in Eleanor’s past is also a mystery to herself which keeps the reader interested in her future. As clues are dangled, events that took place begin to unfold. We are fed some details of her abuse, her time in care, but this novel is not supposed to be an in-depth story about trauma or care experience. It is not a serious narrative about the system.
When Gail Honeyman was asked if service-providers could have done more to alleviate Eleanor’s loneliness, her answer gives insight into why some readers might find the narrative problematic:
That’s a difficult one – I don’t really think I’m qualified to answer that question. I don’t dwell on the details of her experience in social care in the novel because I didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to try and tell that particular part of her story, not without having done a lot of detailed research beforehand.
Honeyman’s response explains why possibly some readers may have difficulties with the care experienced aspects of this character. This is not memoir or autobiography. I took the novel for what it was, Pop-fiction, Chick-lit, a fictionalised and possibly at times a too light-hearted portrayal of the legacy of trauma. A writer though, who has done her research homework around the silence that accompanies this and the ultimate loneliness that difference and reclusiveness can create. Eleanor’s story is all too familiar to those who have experienced the ‘care’ system, arriving traumatised and often leaving even more broken. Told with warmth, humour, and a sad poignancy, Ms Oliphant: weird, quirky, and eccentric; will have you laughing and crying simultaneously. Here is a fictional character you will really care about.
As a reader, there was enough reality in the novel for me to identify with the character and enough fiction for me to enjoy the story. I was pleased to see this quirky character grow. Her metamorphosis although started by a fantasy love, is about the growing friendship with Raymond. Ultimately this was a book about loneliness, the isolation of difference, of other.