Eleanor Elephant is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman
Reviewed by: Ellie Rowsell
I remember learning at school that the narrator of a novel in first person should neither be, this nor that, but a blank canvas on which we can paint an image of ourselves on to the page. Gail Honeyman’s narrator and key character of her debut novel is no blank canvas. She is extremely idiosyncratic and has a history so dramatic that at times I wondered if Honeyman had stretched her character a bit too far. Yet, for all its melodrama, Honeyman has created such a detailed and personable character in Eleanor that by that having finished the book I felt an Oliphant size hole in my life. Perhaps the saving grace is humour. No doubt, the book is sad, it touches on child abuse, loneliness and unrequited love, but I still found myself laughing.
Through Eleanor we see the world in all its absurdity. Much like a child, she discovers both the good and the bad attributes of human behaviour that most of us, for better or for worse, have long since accepted as normal. More positively and most charming perhaps is Eleanor’s account of her first experience of dancing the YMCA
‘’During the next freeform jigging section, I started to wonder why the band was singing about, presumably, the young Men’s Christian Association, but then, from my very limited exposure to popular music, people did seem to sing about umbrellas and fire-starting and Emily Bronte novels, so, I supposed, why not gender-and faith-based youth organisation”
…reminding us that perhaps it is us who are weird and not Eleanor. It is through Honeyman’s other key character, Raymond, that we see much of Eleanor’s charm and it is their budding relationship that not only provides key moments of humour but also a few vital life lessons that perhaps we all need reminding of now then. Perhaps most poignantly of all is the power of simple gestures and not to take them for granted. For example, after meeting for lunch, Raymond says to Eleanor, “See you soon yeah? Take care”, to which Eleanor notes
‘He actually sounded like he meant both; that he would indeed see me soon, and that he wished me to take care of myself. I felt a warmth inside, a cosy, glowy feeling like hot tea on a cold morning.’
It is these small acts of human decency that start to break down the metaphorical wall Eleanor has built around her life, presumably as a means of self protection. In the quote from Olivia Laing’s book on loneliness that preludes Honeyman’s novel, Laing says that ‘loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired.’ It is this concept that has allowed Honeyman to create such an unusual and eccentric main character.
We are still able to apply ourselves to our narrator with ease because whether we have only detected the beginnings of Laing’s metaphorical mould or found ourselves completely immobilised by its growth we have all felt loneliness in one form or another and Eleanor Oliphant is loneliness personified. With over 1 million copies sold in the year of its release, it seems as though Honeyman has touched on a conversation many of us are asking to be had. Loneliness is often suffered in silence and Gail Honeyman’s ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ serves as a powerful and rewarding vehicle for an important conversation.
‘A philosophical question: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? And if a woman who’s wholly alone talks to a plant pot, is she certifiable?’