Eleanor Oliphant is a lonely thirty-year old woman. Just not ‘self-contained’ or without friends, she is bone-achingly lonely:
There have been times when I felt that I might die of loneliness. People sometimes say they might die of boredom, that they’re dying for a cup of tea, but for me, dying of loneliness is not hyperbole. When I feel like that, my head drops and my shoulders slump and I ache, I physically ache, for human contact – I truly feel that I might tumble to the ground and pass away if someone doesn’t hold me, touch me. (p 269)
She works in the back-office of a design company in Glasgow, the only job she has ever had. She is prickly, judgmental, oblivious and agonizingly awkward. Nothing comes easily; she is suspicious and sees the worst in people, while affecting a supercilious superiority. It is no wonder that she repels people, and becomes the butt of their jokes. Except, perhaps, for Raymond from I.T., a disheveled ‘techie’ who calls for her help when a old man collapses in the street. In that act of kindness, Eleanor is gradually brought into a circle of other kind people – not saints, but just ordinary people acting with everyday kindness. Small things, like haircuts and a cat, gradually put some colour into a very bleak life.
We gradually put together Eleanor’s back-story. We learn that she has a burn scar on her face, that she has been the victim of domestic abuse, that she spent many years in foster care and that she has weekly talks with her mother, who is a truly evil, cruel woman. Honeyman’s control of unfolding Eleanor’s story is masterful. At one stage I felt that it was all falling into place too easily, until a twist at the end that I will not reveal. Endings are often difficult, and I think that I enjoyed the first 3/4 of the book better than the last part. I wish that the twist was explored more deeply, but on the other hand, I didn’t need it straightened out and explained either.
Eleanor’s voice is distinctive: arch and highly educated, it also reveals a sardonic but needy humour. Honeyman sustains this voice throughout, and as a reader you are both repelled and yet sympathetic towards her.
Although I normally avoid best-sellers that have stickers on the cover, I really enjoyed this book, and devoured it over a couple of days. I found myself laughing out loud in several places, and tears brimming just a few pages later.
My rating: 9
Sourced from: CAE bookgroups as our March 2020 read.