Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a surprising first novel, set in Glasgow, and a surprisingly good one. That “surprisingly good” may sound condescending, but it isn’t. On the contrary; it’s because the early chapters didn’t appeal, were even tiresome, but proved necessary. Coming of age novels are common; this is less usual, a coming to life one. Equally unusually, it’s a Glasgow novel without violence (though there is violence of a peculiarly distressing sort in Eleanor’s past); instead it’s a Glasgow novel suffused with kindness.
Eleanor, narrator as well as heroine, lives alone , a shuttered life, and insists as the title has it that she is completely fine. An intelligent young woman, a university graduate, speaking with old-fashioned, even academic precision, she is employed as a bookkeeper or accountant and communicates hardly at all with her colleagues in the office; they think she’s odd, which she is. She insists she is in control of her life, even though in her solitary weekends, she drinks two litres of cheap vodka. She certainly is odd. Having in a lottery won two tickets to a concert, she is taken with the lead singer in a band; he is beautiful, looks like a gentleman and is destined, she decides, to be the love of her life. She sets herself to learn everything about him, and embroiders her fantasy.
This isn’t normal, but then nothing about reclusive, self-contained Eleanor is normal. One side of her face is horribly scarred. We learn she has been brought up in care and still endures regular visits from a social worker to whom she insists, of course, that everything is fine. Then there are disturbing weekly telephone conversations with her critical mother – who is, it seems, confined to an asylum or perhaps prison. She always feels worse after these conversations; there is something sinister and nasty about Mummy.
Chance intervenes. Leaving work one day with a colleague, Raymond, whom she despises as an ill-spoken scruff, they see an old man collapse in the street and call an ambulance. Reluctantly she consents to accompany Raymond to the hospital to see how the old man, Sammy, is. It proves a turning-point. She meets with kindness, from Sammy’s family and, most of all, from Raymond. Gradually she will re-enter life. After one terrible weekend she is brought by Raymond’s care and with the help of a psychotherapist, to confront and admit to the reality of her ruined childhood and damaged life.
Eleanor reads Jane Austen (and the Brontës) and gradually one realises that this is essentially a variation on an Austen novel. Austen’s subject was always the moral education of her heroine, an education which teaches her to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and so to bring her to a true understanding of her own nature and relationship to other people. No Austen heroine is, of course, as severely damaged as Eleanor, but all of them begin by misunderstanding their own nature and capabilities and by getting other people wrong. They learn to put away pride and prejudice and to prefer sense to sensibility, so that eventually they see themselves and other people as they truly are.
This is Eleanor’s story too, even if it is a more lurid story than any Austen gave her heroines, so that Eleanor’s journey out of a sinister shadowland into light is more difficult and more painful. What is remarkable is that it is made possible by the kindness of other people whom at first she regards, as she sees everyone, as strangers, and even in her solipsistic world as inferiors. She has to learn to dismantle her barriers and emerge into the world of everyday.
It is very well done indeed. Eleanor, improbable in the early chapters, is made completely convincing. But what is remarkable is the emphasis Honeyman places on the importance of kindness, something met more often in real life than in novels – except, I suppose in Alexander McCall Smith’s. If the subject of the novel is Eleanor’s journey from solipsism to engagement with others – a journey which ends triumphantly – it is the kindness of others, especially Raymond, a boy who, as his mother says, will do anything for anyone, which makes her recovery possible. This is an uncommonly intelligent and sympathetic novel.
*Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman, Harper Collins, 383pp, £12.99