Category: Contemporary Fiction
Author: Gail Honeyman
Eleanor Oliphant is the story of a young woman who leads a life of extreme seclusion and a chance encounter in helping an elderly gentleman on the road sets off a series of events that allow her to come undone and eventually, exorcise the demons of her past. My reaction, to some extent was also coloured by the context in which read this book, as a nomination for a literary prize. This is a commercial novel written for the masses which by no means is a criticism, but whether that makes it a suitable candidate for a literary prize is debatable.
Starting with the positives, this book tackles an incredibly interesting issue that is quite under-represented in literature – loneliness in the younger generation or so-called millennials. There’s a set expectation that loneliness is generally associated with old age. And that might not be the case, especially in this digital age where our online presence is a mere facade of what we choose to present to the world. There’s such ingenuity in the way Eleanor, as a character, experiences chronic loneliness. It isn’t a dearth of people around her that’s the cause, rather it’s her social ineptness of establishing meaningful connections that hold her back. This is a plot driven novel and its very accessible and readable which makes it for an engaging page turner.
Now coming to what didn’t really work for me. In a plot driven novel, I’d like a bit of ambiguity. However, I did think the parabolic nature of where the plot was heading was evident. It was hard not to miss the tiny moments, that you’d know will hold weight at a later stage. Aside from loneliness, the core of the book tries to tackle very profound themes centring around an extremely troubled mother-daughter relationship, the idea of relative normalcy, nature versus nature, etc., and such themes need to be handled with incredible deftness, nuance and subtlety to really do justice and I did feel it was rather heavy handed. Honeyman leaves little for the reader’s interpretation and prefers hand holding you throughout.
While in some cases extreme trauma or a single cataclysmic event could trigger a person to withdraw into themselves, in reality though, loneliness is more a compound of smaller issues and that to a small extent felt like a misrepresentation to me. Eleanor’s intelligence as well was never quite consistent, moments where she exhibits profound clarity sat jarring against moments when most minor issues confounded her, and this inconsistency was like a little itch throughout.
Maybe I’m just being overcritical? Entirely possible. I still enjoyed the experience of reading this book and would recommend it.