Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
I cringed when Eleanor begins her makeover with a bikini wax but, fortunately, even though she discovers people are nicer to her when she gets a haircut and camouflages her facial scar, her real transformation comes from inside. Although I might quibble with some of the details (especially the confrontational manner and speed of change), I was heartened to come across a good enough fictional therapist in contrast to the rogues who practice in some novels. I also enjoyed how Eleanor’s initial contempt for her counsellor and her methods fades over time.
Winner of the Costa First Book Award, Gail Honeyman’s debut kicks off with an epigraph on loneliness, although I’d question whether that’s really what this novel is about. Eleanor’s loneliness is constitutional, the result of never having been loved. Given the extent of her childhood damage, the reader can only admire – even as we smile at her gaucheness – her determination to rise above it and be, indeed, completely fine. Although it’s a fine achievement, if I was on the Costa judging panel, I’d have been rooting for The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times or The Haunting of Henry Twist. Published by HarperCollins, I bought my own copy!
Upstate by James Wood
Scattered with gems about the pleasures and tensions of relationships that go back to our very beginnings, literary critic James Wood’s second novel asks us to consider why some people find living so much harder than others. Do Vanessa’s difficulties stem from nature (she was always an isolated child) or nurture (boarding school, her parents’ bitter divorce in her teens and her mother’s death not long after)? Is introspection (through therapy or the study of philosophy) an asset or barrier against living? The author leaves it for the reader to decide.
Personally, I can’t answer without knowing whether or not Vanessa was left to cry as a baby and how her parents handled the arrival of her sister when she was too young to articulate her fears. It’s a clever touch that Alan seems oblivious of the very thing Vanessa seems to regret about his behaviour (warning her off an early boyfriend because his prospects were poor) and the pressure to be the “easy” child has left Helen feeling equally alone. Nevertheless, Alan’s parenting failures seem relatively minor; where he most lets his daughter down is in his anxiety that therapy will pin the blame on him. So Vanessa seems not to have had enough to help her; despite her parents finding her a child therapist at sixteen. (I had to laugh at their struggle to find someone in Newcastle in 1982 when, beginning my clinical psychology training there the following year, my first placement was at a highly renowned child and adolescent mental health unit providing a wide range of therapeutic interventions.)
Seemingly set around ten years ago, the reader will either love or hate the family’s discussions of a future that has come to pass (the digital revolution in music production and distribution; whether America is ready for a black president; whether the annoying term “going forward” will migrate to the UK). It’s a thoughtful novel about family and vulnerability, and the difficulty of helping someone when our own foibles are wound up in theirs. Thanks to Jonathan Cape for my advance proof copy. For another novel about looking for family in upstate New York, see my review of Hotel on Shadow Lake.
Tap or click the image for the other reviews I’ve posted this month. How do these 11 books measure up against the targets I set myself earlier this year? I’m counting 6 (target ≥ 50% met) from independent publishers; 0 (target ≥ 25%) BME authors; 1 (below target ≈ 20%) translations; 6 (target ≥ 50% met) by female authors; one potential favourite (Spaceman of Bohemia).