Two novels in which the protagonist is NOT ‘completely fine’

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Most people I know who have read this book have loved it – but not everyone, notably Rebecca (who reviewed it here).  I must say that although it was an entertaining read that I sped through, I’m tending towards Rebecca’s view.  You’ve also probably seen all over the place (e.g. here) that this book among others including  those by Joanna Cannon, Ruth Hogan,  Rachel Joyce et al are being marketed as ‘Up Lit’ – novels where kindness and compassion tug at our heartstrings and ultimately uplift us.  This is just a marketing ploy –  these books are nothing new – Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was published in 2012, and really ’twas ever thus – just think of all the social comedies from decades, even centuries past!

But back to Eleanor Oliphant, nearing thirty, single, still working in the office at a graphic design company.

Maybe he {Bob, her boss} sensed, back then, that I would never aspire to anything more than a poorly paid office job, that I would be content to stay with the company and save him the bother of ever having to recruit a replacement. Perhaps he could also tell that I’d never need to take time off to go on honeymoon, or request maternity leave. I don’t know.

Eleanor’s loneliness and sadness leap off the page, except she doesn’t understand how lonely she is with no real friends, how her two bottles of vodka a weekend habit is a problem. Her life is compartmentalised, and runs on a fairly strict timetable. Her interactions with her colleagues are minimal, one-sided – they laugh at her literalness, routines and isolation.  At this stage, Eleanor reminds us of Graeme Simsion’s Don Tillman in The Rosie Project, who has Asperger’s (although this is never stated in Eleanor’s case). It’s clear that the rest of the book will primarily be concerned with finding Eleanor her Mr Right, and it will be two steps forward, one or two steps back each time.

But it’s not that simple – as well as Eleanor’s romantic aspirations, there is Mummy, with whom she speaks weekly,  to deal with.  We learn early on that Eleanor has a scarred side to her face and yes, of course, we’ll get to find out what happened.  Thank goodness for new IT colleague at work Raymond, his mum, and Sammy – an old gent that Raymond and Eleanor help when he has a bad fall – basically, they provide the up, to set against the down of Eleanor’s back story and toxic relationship with her mother.  Because of this, the book does career from one extreme to the other, passing through some cliched scenes which usually arise from Eleanor’s lack of awareness about the world in general.  As often with debut novels, it felt to me as though the author had thrown everything in, resulting in a rather uneven mix.  I did really like the character of Raymond though, and I did like the way the title can be read several ways from being straight, through denial to irony and sarcasm.  This novel was enjoyable but it didn’t uplift me in the way I’d expected.  (6.5/10)

Source: Own copy   Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Harper Collins, 2017) paperback, 400 pages. BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland by Nicolai Houm

Translated from the Norwegian by Anna Paterson

As this short novel opens, an American woman wakes up in a tent in a remote mountain region of Norway. She is completely alone, without means of communication. As the storm rages outside, she contemplates death.

This startlingly bleak opening is followed by a more normal scenario. Jane Ashland, a writer, is on a plane to Norway where she will stay with some distant relations; new family, a new location to hopefully distract her from her writer’s block.  She makes friends with her neighbour on the plane, Ulf, who invites her to join him on his expedition to observe musk oxen should she need to escape.  Finding it impossible to fit in with the Askeland-Nilsens, Jane takes Ulf up on his offer, in spite of their all too brief acquaintance.

Jane is trying to escape far more than writer’s block though. We realise that something happened in her old life and that she’s suffering still. She’s suffers huge mood-swings, she’s angry and in denial. She overdoes her medication, washing it down with too much alcohol. In her mental crisis, she’s difficult to get on with, and no-one except her therapist back home can reach her. We need to know what happened to put her in this distressing condition. The story goes backwards and forwards as we edge back towards the prologue in the present, and piece together her old life and how it was shattered.

Houm’s writing in Paterson’s translation is nuanced and perceptive, capturing Jane’s state of mind throughout. I found the initial structure, which flits back and forth in short chapters a little chaotic, but the book does settle into longer sections later.  There was some striking imagery in the writing and there were even parts to enjoy, such as when Jane takes boyfriend Greg to meet her parents or the first time.  However the overall flavour of the novel is quite depressing, which is why, perhaps, I found it a hard book to love, in spite of the good writing. (7/10)

Also read Susan’s review here.

Source: Review copy  Nicolai Houm, trans Anna Paterson, The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland (Pushkin Press, 2018), paperback original, 192 pages.

BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link).


8 thoughts on “Two novels in which the protagonist is NOT ‘completely fine’

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    Thanks for mentioning my review. I agree that Eleanor Oliphant was a very quick read. But it’s strange to me how many people have taken it to heart, like her story is so amazing and uplifting. It makes me feel like I read a whole different book! It’s good to find more critical reviews, like yours and Lonesome Reader’s, that back me up. I think Laura Tisdall was also sceptical.

    I do rather like the sound of the Houm, though. I will try to find a copy.

    Both have similarities to The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn — a lonely woman self-medicating with alcohol, seeing a therapist, trying to cope with her past. A rare thriller for me, but I very much enjoyed it and would recommend it.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      There was too much to the EO. There were two novels in it – the abusive backstory and the romcom – didn’t mesh well together for me.

      The A J Finn does sound good – but I’ll wait for the paperback.

      • Laura says:

        Yes! I didn’t like Eleanor Oliphant at all. I only wrote a brief Amazon review, but I’ve since found this video that totally echoes my thoughts on the novel:

        I agree about the ‘up lit’ categorisation and tend to struggle with this kind of book, though I did love Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce which I think is a kind of historical ‘up lit’.

        • AnnaBookBel says:

          That’s a great booktube video. I’m sure I will enjoy Dear Mrs Bird (it’s on my shelves)

  2. Angela J Stapleford says:

    I was interested to read your take on Eleanor Oliphant. I felt more positive towards the book, and I have to say I didn’t really feel like it was trying to be a romcom! I picked it up feeling sceptical because I am not generally a fan of romance – and I was expecting that to be a major theme. However, I became very absorbed in the themes of abuse, power, mental health, loneliness and recovery and felt that Eleanor’s romantic sensibilities were a delusional aspect of her mental health problems and a distraction for her from dealing with her issues. I think it’s so interesting to see how different readers have taken so many different impressions away from the novel!

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