Costa First Novel Award winner 2017

“What’s wrong?” “Nothing. I’m fine.”

“How was school, today?” “Fine.”

In both of the given scenarios, you know something is wrong. Just not how wrong. But when Eleanor Oliphant insists she is completely fine, you know something is very, very wrong.

To summarise, Eleanor is alive, but she is not living. Her life is a frozen landscape of loneliness and self-loathing. After leaving work on a Friday, she does the weekend shop for the requisite two bottles of vodka, then does not see or speak to anyone until the following Monday morning. She is a spinsterly frump and a figure of fun in the office. And yet she has not given up on herself entirely. She develops a crush on a local rock god and sets about making herself more attractive, covering up her facial disfigurement.

Her shopping expeditions are hilarious. Her lack of nous absolute. Eleanor is not stupid, but her isolation has been so complete, for so long, she has no idea of how to behave. She says things as she sees them. She does the most outrageous things in such a dead-pan way that at times she had me spluttering in my coffee. For example: After insisting on going to the bar, because it is her turn, she then asks Raymond, her work colleague, for the money for his drink. The concept of buying a round is totally alien.

The friendship with Raymond – the office IT technician, in his way as much as a nerd as Eleanor – develops following an incident in which the two help a heart-attack victim. Following them visiting him at the hospital, at Raymond’s insistence, Eleanor is introduced to people, who do not judge her, but who are interested in her. They invite her to family gatherings. Raymond, instead of taking offence at her ignorance, invites her to Sunday tea with his elderly mother. A new world opens up – one in which people are kind.

This experience is designed to begin the thawing of Eleanor’s frozen existence.

This is the process at the core of Honeyman’s novel, but it’s not an easy one. Long-buried traumas do not loosen their grip easily. Nor will Eleanor be released without crashing to an absolute low and receiving professional help. Honeyman’s depiction of her therapy strikes me as true, with patience and good judgment necessary on the padt of therapist and friends to unravel the knots in Eleanor’s psyche without destroying her entirely. Thankfully Raymond is on hand to support her, and I knew that, at last, Eleanor Oliphant really was going to be completely fine.

The tone and pitch of Honeyman’s debut is astounding. It was a emotional ride from laughter (at times I wondered if Eleanor was destined to be the C21st Bridget Jones) to heartbreak (as awareness dawned about Eleanor’s true state of being) to happiness (at the prospect of her recovery). I cared for Eleanor in a way I haven’t cared for a fictional being in a long, long time.

I wonder why it took me so long to read it. Something to do with an avoidance of all last year’s hype and buzz, probably. Not always the best decision to make, and in this case, definitely not. Because this is a proper gem. Don’t miss it.