Survival, recovery and why we should aim to feel shiny
Updated: Oct 1, 2018
TW: alcoholism, suicide, mental health, child abuse
Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is not my usual reading material, which is another way of saying I didn’t buy it three years ago to study and then, after never actually studying it, it’s been accumulating dust at the back of my bookshelf ever since. This is one of my mum’s books. Although I don’t like to admit it, I am most likely a massive snob when it comes to what books I read. It's a downside of studying literature at university where everything your mind digests is meaningful, profound and on the whole not overly constructed with the aim to be enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong – I love the meaningful and the profound – but sometimes you just need to chill out a bit and remind yourself that you, like Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant, are completely fine.
I don’t tend to rely on a book’s achievements for a signifier of its worth but I have to admit that, having won the 2017 Costa Book Awards and been a No.1 Sunday Times Bestseller, Eleanor Oliphant did give me a lot of hope. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Honeyman’s heroine is stoic and socially inept, judgemental and dull, only averagely attractive and quite disturbingly persistent in her pursuits of a certain single, male musician. She is also the product of a pretty horrendous upbringing and childhood trauma that has left her with burns to her face. More than anything, she is refreshingly flawed and relatable. The story follows Eleanor from her mundane beginnings as a young woman living alone, just turned thirty, in Glasgow who wakes up at the same time every day, goes to work at the same time every day and drinks the same two bottles of vodka every weekend. We watch as she struggles to fit into social situations and gets bullied over the phone every Wednesday night by her absent and quite clearly unhinged 'Mummy' while always hinting at this childhood trauma that she doesn’t quite remember.
But something changes for Eleanor: she makes a friend.
The unfashionable, unkempt and all round lovable Raymond comes into her life in the very mundane way anyone becomes friends with a colleague but, unlike the nasty looks and sniggering remarks of the others at work, Raymond stays around. They are unintentionally thrown into friendship when they come across old man Sammy Thom, who has passed out right in front of them in the street. Eleanor’s organised life is thrown upside down as she visits Sammy in hospital, gets to know his family, and Raymond and Raymond’s family. Out of nowhere, Eleanor is no longer alone.
“Life felt it was moving very fast indeed at the moment, a whirlwind of possibilities.”
Through companionship and throwing herself more and more into life, Eleanor’s confidence grows and she begins living rather than existing. Admiring Sammy’s daughter Laura for always being ‘shiny’ (attractive and well dressed), Eleanor watches in awe of a woman who is comfortable with and in control of her sexuality. Gradually, Eleanor buys herself some make up, some clothes and gets her hair cut. Of course, a woman’s worth isn’t measured by her physicality but for Eleanor, her embrace of the superficial is about self-care, self-love and finally allowing herself to feel good enough. When Laura cuts and dyes Eleanor’s hair, Eleanor too can feel shiny.
“You’ve made me shiny, Laura… thank you for making me shiny.”
HOWEVER, just as everything starts going well in Eleanor’s life, Mummy tries to take it away. Throughout the book, we believe Mummy is absent, in prison for an unspecified crime that clearly has something to do with fire and she stays in contact with her daughter through abusive weekly phone calls. Except there are no phone calls. There is no Mummy. ‘Mummy’ died in the house-fire that she set twenty years ago to kill the then ten-year-old Eleanor and Eleanor’s younger sister, Marianne. While she succeeded in killing Eleanor’s sister, Eleanor escaped with only scars to her face – a fitting metaphor for the scars Mummy’s abuse clearly left on her mind.
Mummy, her voice, her input, her cruelty and her opinions are all retained in Eleanor’s mind. After a particularly uncomfortable realisation that the musician she has been pining after is in fact an arrogant asshole, Eleanor has a pretty horrendous few days, binge-drinking vodka and contemplating when and how to commit suicide. It’s an uncomfortable read, as it should be, but it’s refreshingly honest and says a lot about the extent of human desperation and emotional scars.
Then, in comes Raymond. While the prince-coming-to-the-rescue trope is tired and unrealistic, Raymond going to Eleanor’s flat after she hasn’t been in work for a few days is an uplifting reminder that there is always someone that cares. Eleanor doesn’t expect anyone to come and save her. She expects to die and to be forgotten. Raymond’s determination in (literally) picking her up off the floor and nursing her back to health is really a very sweet reminder of the power of friendship and human kindness. He convinces her to see a doctor and Eleanor begins to process her problems with a therapist. Gradually, she uncovers the knowledge of the fire, and of Marianne, and of Mummy. She returns to work, having been promoted not long before.
She gets her life back.
My favourite quote of the book: