Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Image: The Guardian

Title: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Author: Gail Honeyman

Rating: 5/5

Publisher: HarperCollins, Kindle Edition

Synopsis

Gail Honeyman’s debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, follows the simple life of a young woman. Eleanor goes to work five days a week, comes home on the Friday, has rather a lot to drink, and catches up on sleep over the weekend.

At work, she doesn’t talk to many people, but always gets on with the day. She doesn’t go out and socialize on Friday nights or the weekends, despite the expectation. Once a week, she receives a phone-call from her Mum, which is her only real form of communication outside work. She lives a simple life, but one that is seemingly lonely and void of human interaction, friendship and support.

Her relationship with her Mum, is told through a series of weekly phone calls. These phone calls are often hard to take in, due to the sheer level of emotional abuse her Mum conveys to her over the phone.

“Mummy has always told me that I am ugly, freakish, vile. She’s done so from my earliest years, even before I acquired my scars.”

Gail Honeyman

After a certain turn of events, feauturing helping an elderly gentleman after he had a fall and becoming (acccidentally) friends with a work colleague from the IT department, Eleanor begins to realise her life is very lonely, and in fact, socialising isn’t too bad (in moderation.)

The novel gradually unravels troubling elements of Eleanor’s past, we learn fairly early on that she grew up in the care system but for a while, never discover why. With the help of her new friend, Raymound, Eleanor begins the journey of coming to terms with her past. This novel is as true as they come. Through Eleanor, we get an insight into the realities of loneliness, depression, and fractured family life.

“I have been waiting for death all my life. I do not mean that I actively wish to die, just that I do not really want to be alive.”

Gail Honeyman

Review

Strangely enough, I picked up this book in the Kindle deals for £1, thinking it would be a nice ‘in-between read,’ as I am still ploughing my way through Ducks, Newburyport. However, I was pleasantly surprised and found myself utterly drawn to the book, so much so that I didn’t read a single page of Ducks, Newburyport. Nonetheless, it is far more complex than the ‘light and fluffy’ type read that I initially had it down for.

After reading internet reviews, it seems that many people didn’t take to the main character, Eleanor Oliphant, very well. Or rather, didn’t know how to feel about her. However, I immediately took to her. I liked the way she actively defies social expectations, says what she thinks – she conveyed a huge amount of honesty and integrity as a character; which meant I was drawn towards her. Often, she made me laugh out loud too.

Part of my reasons for loving this novel is because I found myself relating to Eleanor so much. Like Eleanor, I too experienced the care system, although not to the same extremities as herself. I too, sometimes struggle in social situations and often withdraw myself into the comfort of my own home. However, apart from feeling a sense of attachment towards her, I enjoyed the novel in its entirety. Upon reading it, I could not predict what was going to come next, yet I could not put the book down.

This novel should be praised and read for its sheer honesty and exploration of many contemporary, social issues which are not fully discussed openly within mainstream society. Eleanor is a young woman suffering from crippling loneliness, depression, social withdrawal and alcoholism – although she would rarely drink to excess in public. As a young woman in her thirties, society tells her she should have her whole life together. However, this novel sheds an important light onto the realities of everyday life as a young adult – and the fact that not everyone can always have it together.

It’s a novel that deals with some very difficult subjects but is delivered in the most lighthearted, honest and engaging way. Eleanor Oliphant begins to open up more herself as the novel progresses. Upon finishing the book; the reader begins to be reassured that Eleanor Oliphant; is going to be completely fine.

Book Review: Lolita

Title: Lolita

Author: Vladimir Nabokov

Rating: 4/5

Publisher: Penguin, Penguin Classics

Synopsis

Lolita, is a first person narrative novel, told through the eyes of a middle aged professor, Humbert Humbert. Humbert develops an obsession with a twelve year old girl, Dolores Haze, who he pursues for the rest of his days. Humbert nicknames his prey, Lolita, and attempts to gain greater access to her, in becoming a lodger at her Mother’s house in Ramsdale, New England.

It is here, where Humbert builds upon his disguse of being the studious professor, working on writing his book. However, this is when the access, and consequently, obsession, with Lolita begins. Soon, he will have unrivaled access, as he marries Charlotte, Lolita’s mother.

After a tragic set of events working in his favour, Lolita and Humbert embark on a road trip across America, staying in various motels along the way. Throughout this, Humbert engages in sexual activity with Lolita and constantly rewards her with the ‘things’ she desires – the mundane clothes, candy and magazines that young girls crave.

Eventually, of course, Humbert gets caught and his pursuit of Lolita suddenly comes to an end. The novel ends with Humbert imprisoned but still professing his love for Lolita,

“It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.”

Vladimir Nabokov

Review

Image: Amazon

This novel made me experience a whirlwind of different emotions. Simultaneously, I was in awe of the construction of the novel and the sheer complexity of some of the images and prose Nabokov has created, but at the same time, was reeling in disgust due to the difficulties of the content. Scenes that detailed Humbert’s sexual encounters with Lolita, and his portrayal of lingering desire for young girls in general, left me with a sense of rage and disgust.

Nabokov, in the use of this first person narrative, creates an unrivaled account of a middle aged man’s erotic obsession with a twelve year old girl. This unrivaled account which has been deemed as “unreliable” by critics, means that Lolita’s point of view is swept away under the carpet. As readers, we are never enlightened into her perspective. Thus, there are many unanswered questions. Effectively, she is silenced, which I suspect is the very point. Additionally, the relationship is almost normalised, especially by the use of ‘relationship’ type prose throughout,

“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita.”

Vladimir Nabokov

Moreover, the silencing of the victim is achieved in the crafting of this first person narrative. Many (i.e, Stephen Metcalf), have pointed to this as being Nabokov’s critique of totalitarianism under the Soviet regime. Nabokov was a known opponent of the Soviet government and opposed Tsarists autocracy, communism and fascism that he lived through. It is possible, that this silencing of Lolita, the stripping of her identity and childhood, conveys a sense of control not too dissimilar to that used by the Soviet regime.

Lolita immediately gained a ‘classic’ status despite its controversial topic, it was even banned from entering the United Kingdom in 1955. However, its classic status is arguably not due to the story or unconventional theme; but its literary construction. The reader is constantly exposed to a series of complex metaphors and lyric poetic passages that make it easy to forget the shocking undertones of the novel. It can be easy to get swept away by the beauty of the language and forget that something very sinister is taking place on the pages before you. However, as someone that is a sucker for beautiful prose, I appreciated this element.

What struck me as particularly strange and almost sinister, was Humbert’s own self awareness of the horror of his actions and desires. He constantly addresses the reader as “the jury” – putting himself deliberately on trial. But the novel is a monologue of his own account and he always refers to the brutality of his crimes,

“One moment I was ashamed and frightened, another recklessly optimisitc. Taboos strangulated me.”

Vladimir Nabokov

However, regardless of the morality Humbert places on his actions, there is a certain directness in his address to the reader and the narration almost feels like a sit down conversation between him and the reader. There is a sense of intimacy which is enlightening and highly disturbing. Behind everything, and perhaps most of his motivations, appears to be Humbert’s absolute frustration with the restraints of American society,

“….civilisation which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve…”

“We are not surrounded in our enlighttened era by the little slave flowers that can be casually plucked…”

Vladimir Nabokov

I sensed a definitive obsession with what he perceived as the faults within society – for, the one he lived in permitted his relationship with a twelve year old girl. He believes these rules are in place due to the creation division between childhood and adulthood (page 124.)

Humbert as a narrator is truly, and honestly, self reflective which felt like an attempt to appear more human. However, despite this level of self reflection and awareness, he still maintained at the end of the novel that despite his obsession with Lolita being over, he would always crave the same thing,

“I would be a knave to say, and the reader a fool to believe, that the shock of losing Lolita cured me of my pederoins.”

Vladimir Nabokov

In a way, being able to acknowledge himself as a, “pentapod monster” who did wrong, but still wanting to pursue this, is the mark of a truly disturbed, and possibly incurable individual.

In sum, I found the book incredibly well written and thought provoking. I enjoyed the kind of lyricism Nabokov used and was drawn into the first person narration despite its flaws. There were no barriers or restraint, which made it an interesting psychological insight, as well as a literary joy to read.

This complex first person narration gives the reader nowhere to hide. It is compelling, disturbing and unforgiving. But its craft is a work of art just in itself. This paradox between the beauty of the prose, and the harrowing, disturbing nature of the subject fills the novel with complexity. I can see why this is a a classic; Lolita will linger with me for a long time to come.

October in Books

Image: The Lake District, Pixabay

I didn’t get round to reading much this month, but the two books I did read, I very much devoured and loved.

Imaginary Friend, Stephen Chbosky (2019) Thriller/Horror Fiction

I initially piked up this book as I was attracted to its beautiful, reflective cover. Having devoured Perks of Being a Wallflower during my teens, I had high hopes for this book, the first Chbosky has written in twenty years. However, I was disappointed and actually abandoned it after 200 pages. I just couldn’t get myself invested or hooked on the story. Working in a bookshop has made me realise that life is far too short to plough through books which I am not enjoying.

I started off intrigued, as the book gave me Stranger Things vibes right from the beginning. I enjoyed getting to know the characters in the brief period I was reading the book, however, I felt the book got progressively silly. The story is narrated primarily through Christopher, a seven year old boy. One night, after him and his Mother have moved house, Christopher goes missing in a nearby woods.

Christopher eventually returns, but mysterious voices remain stuck in his head and he is instructed to build a tree house in the woods to ensure his loved ones are safe. As I said, I didn’t get far and soon abandoned it. The narration through the eyes of a child kind of annoyed me. But some might like it.

Beartown, Fredrik Backman (2018) Swedish Contemporary/’Sports’ Fiction. See my in depth review here.

Although being branded as ‘Sports Fiction,’ this book is far more complex. It is a critique of the bonds of community in the face of injustice and a tale of youth culture. But above all, it is a book of remarkable strength and one where the central message remains long after finishing the final page.

The story is narrated through different residents of Beartown in alternating sections – some of which can sometimes be just a few lines. This gives the impression of the interconnectedness of the small community. The beauty of the rural community is constantly critiqued by the featuring of rape culture, alcoholism, toxic masculinity, adolescence, loneliness and drug abuse which engulfs various inhabitants.

Hockey is the central force which binds the community together – but it is also the reason for its downfall. An awful crime is committed by one of the town’s leading hockey players which divides the community in ways not experienced before. It offers an insight into how communities can be so tightly bound that justice is ignored in the face of their own preservation. It is far more than a tale of a sporting team in a small town, but a critique of contemporary society and exposure of the social problems rural communities across the world can face.

5/5

The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District (2015) James Rebanks Non-Fiction/Nature writing

With its endless, glorious greenery and mountainous views under a constant gaze of misty fog, it can be easy to forget that the landscape of the Lake District is one maintained by committed farmers who spend their lives working this landscape. However, this well written memoir is an ode to the lives of those who do just that.

“The farms and the flocks endure, bigger than the life of a single person. We are born, live our working lives and die, passing like the oak leaves that blow across our land in the winter.”

This book is written by farmer, James Rebanks, whose family has been farming the same area for nearly six hundred years. Rebanks narrates farming life through the seasons, as well as adding his own personal insights and thoughts about the changing landscape. Rebanks, although born and bred in the Lake District, made the difficult decision in his early twenties to attend Oxford University, in an attempt to widen his skill set and employability, in a period where farming was beginning to decline. He explains the difficulties and strains of this period of his life – especially when revealing these plans to his farming family.

“It felt like the whole modern world wanted to rob me of the life I wanted to lead.”

The book acts as a memoir, rather than a history of the Lake District as such, but dicusses some imperative points. Rebanks gives attention to the impact of tourism, decline of rural farming in the modern world and the historic legacy of romanticizing the landscape – from writers like William Wordsworth. Despite his many criticisms of the fleeting tourists, whom may pay little attention towards the hard work which goes into maintaining the landscape, Rebanks does acknowledge that everyone should be allowed to appreciate the beauty of the landscape.

However, his central argument which he draws upon is that visitors should appreciate the centuries of hard labour which has gone into making the Lake District the beautiful place it is today. It is not just a fleeting, glamorous visit for inhabitants, but a lifelong commitment. Above all, it gives central attention to the financial hardships which current farmers are facing, and the ins and outs of daily farming tasks in an environment which is just as harsh as it is beautiful.

This book is beautifully and coherently written, and one which I would recommend to anyone. I am very much looking forward to James Rebanks second book, due to be published in 2020.

5/5