Book No 13 (2018) : Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

eleanor oliphantEleanor Oliphant is, by all accounts, a bit of a misfit. She doesn’t conform to the social norms her colleagues expect, often speaking her mind seemingly without considering the effect her unbridled honesty might have. Eleanor doesn’t really join in, spending every weekend alone, comforted only by a couple of bottles of vodka which she buys from her local corner shop. Sometimes when she speaks, her voice is croaky because it is so long since she last had a conversation with anyone. If her phone rings, it makes her jump.

But she’s certainly not daft. Eleanor has a university degree in Classics, can finish the crossword in the ‘Telegraph’, has held down a job for 9 years, watches BBC4 documentaries and reads books.

Life is plodding along uneventfully for Eleanor until a series of events come together to make her start to question, well, whether she is completely fine. The reader of course, knows this dysfunctional young woman is far from fine. Very early on we sense the undercurrents in Eleanor’s life – her tense relationship with ‘Mummy’ to whom she only speaks once a week by phone, the involvement of social care professionals, scars on her face. A traumatic past is hinted at. Eleanor has secrets to hide.

To start with I was intrigued and amused by this book, as Eleanor’s odd naivety provides an ideal opportunity for comedy. But I began to feel more and more uncomfortable when I realised that very often Eleanor was the butt of the jokes; I wasn’t laughing near her, I was laughing at her.

My unease began to grow as the inconsistencies in Eleanor’s character and behaviour began to emerge: even though she is widely in touch with the world via papers, magazines and TV, she speaks in an oddly stilted way which is totally at odds with someone highly educated. Eleanor orders a Magners and continues to refer to it as ‘Magners drink’, despite the fact that the label clearly says ‘Irish Cider’. She doesn’t know what a laptop is called and refers to dancing as ‘freeform jigging’. Eleanor just didn’t make sense, I couldn’t reconcile these inconsistencies in the author’s development of her character, and I got crosser and crosser. Although I finished the book, I felt it was over-long, contrived and based upon a highly improbable central character.

Eleanor Oliphant is due to appear as a film, produced by Reese Witherspoon. Maybe a cinematic interpretation of the book will be less reliant upon the finer details, and so more forgiving of its failings. But as far is the book is concerned, I am at odds (again) with the Sunday Times, Costa Book Awards, BBC R4’s ‘Book at Bedtime’ and a whole host of other enthusiastic admirers. ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine‘ feels like a lost opportunity to examine the plight of the lonely in our society.

 

 

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Book No 4 (2017) The Sea House

the sea houseWriting a book review isn’t an instantaneous thing for me. I don’t turn the last page of a book and immediately start bashing away at the keyboard. Instead the review forms over time in my head, sometimes whilst I am still reading, and then it takes me a little while to put it all in to words. For about half of Esther Freud’s ‘Sea House‘, the review which was forming was at best indifferent, at worst uncomplimentary. But then something changed and I was totally won over by its charm.

Lily has rented a Suffolk cottage so that she can work on her research of a famous architect, Klaus Lehmann. Reading through Lehmann’s letters, given to her by his son, Lily learns of Klaus’ passion for his wife, Elsa – a love which is possessive and jealous. The focus of the novel alternates between Lily and Max Meyer, a young artist who was commissioned many years ago to produce a painting of the house of Gertrude Jilks. Through Gertrude, Max is introduced to Elsa and the pair embark upon a passionate affair. Lily’s echoes Max’s; while she and her partner, Nick, are apart, she is drawn in to a relationship with Grae, her neighbour. Gradually, the past and present converge, as the links between the characters are revealed.

The book has a fairly complex plot – I couldn’t work out the connections between the main players: the lines joining them were only sketched lightly. After a while, I decided to abandon my frustrations and stop thinking so hard about the plot. The novel is full of insightful descriptions and prose, in which the sea and its shoreline communities play an important part. Unsurprisingly, houses also feature heavily, anchoring people in time and place.

It was at the point that I stopped concentrating so hard that I began to enjoy this book more. It must have been all those descriptions of the sea. I just let it wash over me.

Book No 3 (2017) The Butcher’s Hook

butchers hookAnne Jaccob is a young woman who knows what she wants. What she wants is Fub, the butcher’s boy. With her household thrown into disarray by the arrival of a new baby, Anne is drawn into the arrangements involved in running a London house in the 1700s, including the checking of meat brought for inspection. Fub brings the cuts of flesh to the back door, and hooks Anne. He awakens something in Anne which she has not experienced before and which she is not going to give up easily. But when their liaison is threatened, Anne herself is drawn into a realm of butchery and blood spillage that Fub could never have envisaged.

This novel, the debut novel by former ‘Blue Peter’ presenter Janet Ellis, fascinated me. The period and historical details of the book are finely drawn, creating a credible backdrop against which the author sets out the tale. But it is Anne herself who provides the main interest; from the outset the reader knows that Anne has the capacity for malevolence when she is slighted.  She is cunning, duplicitous and single-minded, capable of hot-blooded passion yet also cold-blooded revenge. I was totally drawn in by her.

As well as Anne, there is a strong supporting cast of characters who spring to life from the page: Simeon Onions, to whom Mr Jaccob hopes that Anne will be married, lecherous Dr Edwards who abuses the trust of both Anne and her father, twittering Aunt Elizabeth. The women in the novel are largely compliant and malleable, shaped by the strictures of their society. The men don’t fare much better, being self-interested and unscrupulous.

Some reviewers have called the ‘The Butcher’s Hook‘ a feminist work and I am not sure if I entirely agree with that conclusion. However, what does become apparent as the plot progresses, is that in order to hold on to what she wants, Anne has to behave more like the men around her than the women. Leaving me wondering if anything much has changed since 1763.