Long after your chance has gone to make it as a professional gymnast, ballerina or violinist, there is and always still the chance to write your book. And here comes a debut novel discovered through a writing competition, by an author in her 40s, which has sold for huge sums worldwide. It does happen.
And what a joy it is. The central character of Eleanor feels instantly and insistently real, as if she had been patiently waiting in the wings for her cue all along. Most workplaces have an Eleanor: the slightly odd, plastic bag- clutching person who scuttles away from all communal enterprises; who rarely says a word that isn’t about the matter in hand; whose home life can only be speculated about, not always kindly. Eleanor’s entire existence is clear, orderly – and completely empty. She works all week, goes home on a Friday night, heats up a Tesco pizza, drinks two bottles of vodka and speaks to nobody until Monday morning comes round again.
Given the number of books about dementia, memory loss and other mental health issues, it is surprising that it has taken profound loneliness this long to take centre stage. It is, after all, by many accounts one of the great scourges of our age, when everyone is meant to be having the most amazing time eating avocados with their friends on Instagram.
There are many reasons for Eleanor’s isolation. These are gradually unpicked as the novel unfolds; as well as the mystery of whether there is actually something wrong with her, or whether it is just that without social interaction, our ability to understand what is appropriate behaviour in the world simply withers away.
And Eleanor is hilarious. This is her drinking from her favourite mug: “I purchased it in a charity shop some years ago, and it has a photograph of a moon-faced man. He is wearing a brown leather blouson. Along the top, in strange yellow font, it says ‘Top Gear’. I don’t profess to understand this mug. It holds the perfect amount of vodka, however, thereby obviating the need for frequent refills.”
As the book progresses she falls madly in love with a patently terrible pop star, whose tweets and career trajectory are a joy in themselves; is persuaded to help an old man when he falls over and, gradually, gets drawn into the orbit of other people and starts to build a web of connections that might lead to a life she wants to lead.
It feels like a cross between RJ Palacio’s Wonder and Brian Moore’s Judith Hearne, but funnier. Characters aren’t goodies, baddies or plot devices, they just feel like people. The overwhelming emotion is kindness. If you don’t cry the first time Eleanor goes to a hair salon and thanks the blowsy Laura for “making her shiny”, you haven’t a heart. This is a narrative full of quiet warmth and deep and unspoken sadness. It makes you want to throw a party and invite everyone you know and give them a hug, even that person at work everyone thinks is a bit weird.
There is a twist at the end, as is tiresomely de rigueur these days, but it is unnecessary. Eleanor Oliphant’s happy ending arrives eventually – as does the book’s wonderful, joyful message: it is never too late, for any of us.
• Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is published by HarperCollins. To order a copy for £9.74 (RRP £12.99) go to bookshop.hafta-ichi.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian