But is severe loneliness a form of mental illness? Perhaps not officially, but Eleanor Oliphant–the survivor of a childhood trauma that forms the mystery portion of the novel–is among the loneliest people in literature. She’s worked for a decade in a mundane office position, not interacting with co-workers, not having any friends, and not caring to. She is a creature of habit. On her way home Friday, she buys a frozen pizza from Tesco and a couple of bottles of vodka and spends the weekend sleeping and drinking as a means of getting back to Monday unscathed. It’s a grim and isolated existence, and as a result, Eleanor doesn’t understand people or culture, and shows little promise of changing paths.
That is sad, of course, but also makes so much of the novel funny, as well. Eleanor doesn’t care what people think of her, and isn’t even offended when she overhears her co-workers speaking poorly about her. As a result, she says what she wants to often scathingly funny ends.
But after a new work acquaintance starts pushing Eleanor to break old patterns, we see her begin to open up to the possibility of change. As we go along with Eleanor on her journey to uncover the truth about her own past, and it’s brutal, we also sense that she’s finding a way to become happy again and the novel is ultimately a positive one. It reminds me of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove in that regard. Pulled back into a community of people, partly against her will, Eleanor is saved and reclaimed.
I’m a huge fan of first-person narratives, especially ones where the narrator hide elements of the truth from both us and from herself. The characters in this novel are not just plot devices, but feel like real people, and it’s Eleanor’s voice that draws us in and keeps us. It’s a delightful debut novel and I look for more from Gail Honeyman.