Book review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way, A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.” (p343)

Summary

This book follows 30-year-old Eleanor as she discovers the beauty of friendship and undergoes an internal transformation that gives her the strength to confront demons from her past. (I’ve probably made the book sound less interesting than it is but that’s because I’ve tried to keep my overview just provided spoiler-free.)

Gail Honeyman: 'I didn't want Eleanor Oliphant to be portrayed as a victim'  | Fiction | The Guardian
A version of the book art commonly seen on UK bookshelves. The book sold really well in the US & UK.

This book was published in 2017 and admittedly I’ve heard a lot of hype around this book, so it’s been on my radar for quite a while (I would say about 2-3 years). But like with many things that gain a lot of chatter, I didn’t want to feel pressured into reading it because everyone else was, so I made a mental note to read it when the time was right. Nevertheless, expectations were high and I was excited to get stuck in and figure out what on Earth this book was about. The title doesn’t give away much and neither does the blurb so it is one of those ‘you have to read it for yourself’ type books, if you want to really understand the themes, characters and general storyline of the book. Please be warned that this book deals with themes of suicide, depression and emotional abuse.

The main point of intrigue for readers of this novel will be the series of events behind much of Eleanor’s trauma, although hinted at early on in the book, the details are slowly revealed later on.

Style

The novel is narrated in first person (from Eleanor’s perspective) and is split into three parts; Good days, bad days and better days. I found the choice of first-person narrative to be very beneficial to me as the reader, since Eleanor seems to observe the world, as well as the situations and people she encounters, in a unique and profound way that would be lost in, say, third person, for example. In particular, I loved how it made me feel like I was in her therapy sessions with her, as she went week after week – each session giving her a life-changing revelation.

Thoughts

My impressions upon reading are that I can see why this book captured the imagination of many readers when it was first released. Eleanor is a very quirky, and ultimately a likable character.* She tends to be very savvy, intelligent and kind-hearted; even if not obvious to those she meets at first, those character traits always come through or stand out to them by the end. Her colleagues, for example, find her peculiar and so tend to keep interactions with her to a minimum. Although the peculiarity may be an understandable first impression, Eleanor, as you grow to learn the more you get to know her, is a classic case of why appearances (and first impressions) can be deceiving.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Book Review - Hasty Book List
Alternative book art

Perhaps due to an a typical childhood, Eleanor is usually not afraid to say things how it is which leads to many awkward (and yet hilarious) public encounters which definitely feel more unique to her as an individual. For example, there was an amusing scene in the later half of the book, where Eleanor is ordering coffee with a friend, and when asked what her name is so it can be placed on her drink, she kicks up a fight, ensuring she has the right to privacy. There are not many books I read that make me laugh or smile often and this one achieved this purpose so, props to Gail for that!

My only qualm (yes, there is one, unfortunately) is that it did feel like, when it comes to Eleanor as a character, she came across as quite caricature-like at times and almost unbelievable. I mean, what 29-30-year-old individual would struggle to order pizza in this day and age? A scene in a similar vein takes place where Eleanor buys a new laptop and seems to be really unfamiliar with how to set it up because she’s never owned one before. Another scene that felt slightly unrealistic in an age where tech permeates pretty much most areas of our lives.

However, I will say for every unrealistic trait Eleanor has, there is one that resonates strongly with readers. Whether it be; the loneliness, the frequent bafflement at human behaviour, the overwhelming desire for companionship & friends, the underlying grief, that niggling ‘what is the point of this?’ feeling of life, the depression. It’s all very real stuff, the ‘baggage’ many of us carry from day to day but don’t always see reflected in the characters we read about in books.

*It’s also suspected, but not confirmed that Eleanor is neurodivergent.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this novel is one about an individual’s journey of growth, self-acceptance and change. Although it may take a while to warm to Eleanor, Gail succeeds in creating a character who you can’t help but root for and empathise with. She’s brutally honest about her flaws and mental health issues, making her relatable, if not iconic, for many readers who have or are currently walking in Eleanor’s shoes.

Book Review: Stay With Me

Admittedly, I wrote this post earlier this year, since this novel was one I finished as we entered the new year. However, it’s never felt like the right time to post this for some reason but now, in light of Sickle cell awareness month,which was in September (US and UK), I thought now was a good time as ever.

Summary

This book, like a previous book I have reviewed (An American Marriage) looks at how far the boundaries of love in a relationship can be pushed before breaking. The main characters of this novel are young Nigerian spouses Yejide and Akin. The couple has been trying to get pregnant for a while now but to no avail. Happily in love and content, this would not actually be much of an issue for them were it not for gathering pressure from their in-laws to have children. In the traditional Nigerian culture, they belong to, children symbolise wealth and worth. Due to their attempt to conceive being unsuccessful, Akin’s mother suggests Akin get a second wife to solve this problem. This is only the start of a host of issues that unravel later down the line in this book.

Style

The narration alternates between the two partners although, if I’m not wrong, Yejide delivers slightly more of the story’s narration. Once you’re in the heart of the story, this will make more sense as ultimately, Stay with Me is a story about motherhood, love, loss, faith and hope. The story alternates also between two different time settings – one being modern-day Nigeria (2008) and the other being Nigeria in an earlier time of political instability i.e. coups and military dictatorships. Ayobami is not afraid to dig into how these political events affect the everyday lives of the character; something they regularly talk about with each other or with us via the narration. For example, when Yejide first discovers that a coup has taken place she has to decide whether it would be best to open her salon since she is unsure if staff, let alone customers, would turn up for business.

My thoughts

There are no likable characters in this story, everyone has their flaws, and to some extent suffers in some way because of them. For Yejide it’s her headstrong character and her lack of willingness to see any bad traits in her husband. On the other hand, for Akin, it is carelessness combined with the desire to control the life around him that ends up backfiring on him. Usually, I miss having someone to root for and enjoy getting to know more as I read along but that wasn’t the case here.

You know when a book sweeps you away, almost by surprise? Like wowza, that was unexpected – that is this book. It made me ponder on the importance of not being entirely defined by motherhood but the inevitability of being defined by it anyway. On the one hand, your kids won’t always be with you so your character cannot be based on them due to this factor. But simultaneously, motherhood will change you – how can you not be changed by the bringing of life into the world, and then having to suddenly handle this little creature that relies on you alone to live? The pain and sacrifice that shape such an experience is likely to never leave you the same – for better or for worse. This book boldly explores this beautifully and is highly recommended.

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More about sickle cell awareness month and the disorder itself can be found here

A major breakthrough was announced recently with a drug that would be the first Sickle cell treatment in 20 years – you can read more here on this amazing news.

Book Review: Memory of Love

Grove Atlantic
Cover image from Grove Atlantic

I haven’t written a book review in a while! But, to be fair, as an admittedly slow reader that is to be expected. For the last few months I have mainly been making my way through this book which – I’m pleased to now say – is (very nearly) complete! Yay!

I discovered the novel Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (2010) very randomly through the ebook library site I use. The blurb pulled me in strongly before the book did and I read it and thought ‘woah, that’s going on my reading list!’ Then the time felt right to start the book and the rest is history.

I’ve put the blurb I read online below so you can marvel at its beauty yourself:

Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1969. On a hot January evening that he will remember for decades, Elias Cole first catches sight of Saffia Kamara, the wife of a charismatic colleague. He is transfixed. Thirty years later, lying in the capital’s hospital, he recalls the desire that drove him to acts of betrayal he has tried to justify ever since.

Elsewhere in the hospital, Kai, a gifted young surgeon, is desperately trying to forget the pain of a lost love that torments him as much as the mental scars he still bears from the civil war that has left an entire people with terrible secrets to keep. It falls to a British psychologist, Adrian Lockheart, to help the two survivors, but when he too falls in love, past and present collide with devastating consequences. The Memory of Love is a heartbreaking story of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

Overview

Without repeating the blurb too much, this book straddles the storylines of free different men – Elias Cole, Kai and Adrian Lockheart. It also alternates between the past and present – with much of Elias’ storyline being told from the past perspective – when he is a young man navigating the pre-civil war era in the country. In contrast, the civil war has past in Kai and Adrian’s era, with nothing left but the devastating ruin it has caused; ‘fixing’ this is something that is central to both Kai and Adrian’s jobs as doctors.

However, interweaved within the stories of these three characters are also love stories – from love that never was to love that was but was barren, and love that blossomed but was brief. These play a central part to the development of each narrator and the trajectory of their lives

My thoughts

Aminatta undoubtedly does a great job of painting a country holding great beauty but also dealing with the deep scars of war. Mentally, people are suffering but yet life forces them to go on to ensure survival. Two stories that particularly stood out to me are of patients Adrian treats during his time at a mental health clinic in Sierra Leone. First is Adecali – a young man who formerly was a child soldier and due to horrors witnessed has a strong aversion to the smell of burning meat. There is also another female patient who repeatedly visits the clinic and is treated by Adrian; Agnes – a mother who mysteriously tends to disappear from home and be found days later in a destination with no recollection of her journey. She becomes a fascination for Adrian who tries to get to the root of her behaviour throughout the book – when her backstory is revealed it is honestly so heartbreaking.

Interestingly, despite being set in a predominately Black country Aminatta decides to have predominately white characters as protagonists of this novel; both Adrian and Elias are white English men who reside in the country within different vocations. Elias, is a lecturer on a university campus, whilst Adrian Lockhart – living many years later – is a psychiatrist. This set up inevitably creates the dynamic of Black stories being told through a white lens. However, this is not something you read the book and are completely oblivious too. Constantly throughout the novel, Adrian (and to some extent Elias) is reminded that as a white man and foreign national he is ultimately outsider. He will never fully understand the culture, let alone the post-war mental scars within the patients he treats as someone who swooped in after the war and never experienced its horrors himself.

In a similar vein, although there are many women within the book who are pivotal to the storylines of the narrators – Mamakay, Saffia, Agnes, Illeana – because all the narrators are male, they’re forced to the sidelines, which didn’t seem very satisfactory to me. Don’t get me wrong, we do indeed get to learn about them in detail, but it’s always through the lens of the male gaze so we don’t necessarily get to chance to gain a fully intimate connection with them.

My main qualm with this novel, is its length. The ebook itself, which I read, was nearly 1,000 pages I believe – waaay too long for my liking 😥. I’m more of a fan of a shorter books (ideally 500 pages maximum.) Succinct storytelling is celebrated because it is a difficult skill to master but its really not a strong point in this book and I do wonder if the long length was necessary.

Final verdict

I would recommend this book – the story is beautifully written and unfolds in such an interesting way. It’s also always refreshing to have a book with a non-Western backdrop. However, due to its length be prepared to invest more time than usual in this book and it characters.

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Want to have a read for yourself? The book can be purchased (physical or ebook) format here.

You can also find out what others what thought here on GoodReads.

My new current read: The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Mid-read Reviews: April 2020

One of my resolutions going into the New Year was to read a lot more which I think I am definitely doing; although I don’t have many books to show for it since I seem to, unfortunately, read at a snail’s pace. Of course, I try not to get bogged down in hitting arbitrary goals because that does tend to suck the fun out of leisurely activities like reading.

I thought I would talk a bit about the books I am reading and my thoughts on them – although they are yet to be completed (so no spoilers, please.)

So my current reads are:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Blurb: racial tensions rise in a small community when Atticus – the father of the To_Kill_a_Mockingbird.jpgprotagonist Scout- takes on a rape case, defending Tom Robinson – the black man falsely accused of the crime.

I started to read this a few years ago but never completed it because the copy wasn’t mine and I had to give it back. This read is, therefore, technically my chance at redemption. The part I am currently at is the trial; which I believe the whole book is technically meant to build up towards. It goes without saying that this book is considered a classic, although I am probably reading it more critically and with higher expectations because of that.

It’s hard not to view the protagonist Scout really fondly; I love her curiosity and brave spirit. She also seems to be amazingly intelligent for her age and in many scenes holds her own in conversations with her adult counterparts. Part of me does suspect this is due to the fact she is looking back on childhood events using language natural to her as an adult, as opposed to how she truly spoke as a child.

It would have been interesting to read this at a younger age and compare it to what I know now. Lots of people I speak to about the book mention fondly that they studied it at school; so it appears I must have attended schools that were statistical anomalies in that regard.

One profound part I recently read involves Scout’s friend Dill who runs out crying after witnessing how Tom is questioned on the stand. As Jean consoles him one of the adults observes them and says Dill shouldn’t worry – he may cry now but when he gets older he won’t get as emotional when he witnesses any racial injustice. That scene really does make you realise how desnsitised we easily become overtime to the struggles of others. Most of the time it’s a protection mechanism but it’s rather the fact it happens without us noticing which makes it more insidious.

My Dark Vanessa cover

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell.

Blurb: The book centres on Vanessa who at 15 years old was abused by her English teacher Jacob Strane. Vanessa, – adamant Jacob was her first love – now in her 30s struggles to come to term with past events in the light of the #Metoo movement.

This book is a recent release from HarperCollins but even before then, it has been making the rounds on social media; for some good reasons, and some less so. I was no doubt excited to delve in – the cover alone looks fantastic. From the blurb it goes without saying that this is not an easy or light read; it also does mean I have to take it small doses.

One thing it does make you realise is that victims of trauma come on a spectrum and the road to recognition and peace is not an easy one. Vanessa was ultimately deprived of normal teenage years – instead of giggling with friends at corner shops or gossiping about crushes – she was weighed down with the responsibility of keeping her ‘relationship’ with Jacob a secret. He’s honestly a despicable character; frequently using emotional blackmail to maintain the secrecy of the abuse. The book switches between past and present quite seamlessly; so we are able to witness how the abuse started and its present effects on Vanessa as an adult.

Vanessa as a protagonist isn’t the most likable of people but I don’t think that’s the important thing about this book.  As pointed out skillfully in this article; a lot of well known narratives on abuse revolve around the  perpetrator –  most notably, Lolita; which is referred to often in this novel. Narratives like these then are about women taking ownership of the narrative and finally having the space to share their story.

So there you go – a nice mix of modern and class I like to think.

If you’re looking for more detailed thoughts/ exploration of themes of My Dark Vanessa I would recommend this fantastic round table discussion on The Book Slut – a site I also write for.

Please do feel free to comment & share any thoughts you have about either book!

Memories come, memories go…

I was watching a K-drama recently and the male protagonist Jun-yeong said something interesting. Something along the lines of

‘Memories are scary because you can’t control them.’

The more I pondered on it the more I found it to be true. We create memories but over time they can become like muddy waters that were once clear. We see elements of what makes the original thing but can’t grasp or remember the bigger picture. On a more logical note, even things like dementia, Alzheimers and amnesia take away the human ability to rely on our brains to store our memories like living room cabinet’s store china. Untouched, in one piece and always there for reference. I’ve always thought this is what fuels our addiction to various forms of technology- we love those phones and cameras can capture moments with crystal clear clarity that will remain over time. In this way, they have an added advantage the mind does not.

I was thinking about this [the unreliability of memories] as I read Michelle Obama’s Becoming and the sceptical voice in my head kept asking ‘how on earth does someone remember their childhood with so much clarity?’ Even when I look back to when I was such an age I can’t remember everything- which saddens me slightly- as if my mind’s once-tight grasp has loosened on these precious jewels whilst life turned my attention away.

But I am encouraged by what I do remember. The shine of the sun recently for example, randomly reminded me of the Sunday evening rush to the street outside so we could be first in line when the ice-cream van arrived. (You could always hear it before you saw it.) My siblings and I would always order a flavour called ‘lemon ice’ which captured the two-sided sweet-tangy nature of lemon perfectly. And although we may obsess over the specifics, it’s the feeling of happiness such treasured memories give you which is even more priceless.

Free with flowing thoughts…

On the day I should have been writing this post I had been sitting in an Itsu cafe in South London. It was desolate and peaceful. And in my head as I savoured the peace I congratulated myself for finding my little haven in the bustle. Even though I only had half the day off [of work] I really didn’t know what to do. I had piled on my tabletop the various options I had considered; Bible study booklet, current reading book and notebook for creative writing. It’s quite weird having even just a relatively small amount of time on your hands if you’re used to being on the go non-stop. It’s almost like your mind has to (with a lot of effort) tell your body to chill so you properly relax; embrace the moment of stillness.

As I adjusted and became more comfortable I people watched. In the back of my mind, I imagined being in a small and chic Parisian cafe watching busy folk curry across pavements to the sound of sipping coffee.

It was quiet in the shop but a customer sitting by the door inspired this:

 

Mr Anonymous

He plots world domination

one click at a time.

Liking tweet after tweet

twiddling with his headphones and

smiling out of the window

before swiftly disappearing onto the street,

melting into the crowd.

 

 

 

Book Review: ‘With Malice’ by Eileen Cook

The blurb describes this book as a ‘chilling psychological thriller’ and to be honest, that was enough for me to grab it off the shelf. I’m assuming the title ‘With Malice’ is almost an antithesis of the term ‘With Love’. Although it could refer to the legal concept of malicious intent too; both of which would be very relevant to the novel’s plot.with-malice-book-cover

The narrator and protagonist is Jill Charron an 18-year old student who describes herself as being quite shy but very intelligent and academic-focused. Upon first impressions she is pretty likable and honest. I personally, find her relatable too since she is very academic and intellectually curious. An example of her honesty shining through is when Jill moves in to a treatment centre and assumes her room mate Anna Lopez goes to a school with metal detectors. Thus, indicating to the reader these assumptions are likely due to Anna’s implied Hispanic background.

Cook puts us in an interesting position where we follow Jill’s train of thought as she gradually pieces together details of the accident that caused her injuries. In each chapter along with Jill’s narrative we gain access to police interview transcripts, applications etc.  This is clever, allowing the reader to play detective but also avoiding the issue of the reader being forced to trust an ‘unreliable narrator’ by giving us a second source of information to compare to Jill’s version events. In  addition to this, each chapter ends with something important Jill learns within the chapter; and as cliche as it sounds, it really does make you want to read on!

Nevertheless, despite these positive points, I found that by the time I had nearly reached the end of the book Jill STILL hadn’t remembered much about the accident. I understand the author was maybe trying to be realistic since I’m sure it takes ages for patients in real-life to recover from amnesia. However, this is a book and we don’t have ages. Even the way the recollection of events (when it finally happened) was done was quite annoying because after waiting for so long we don’t even know for sure if its a true memory, a dream or a ‘fake memory’. Suspense is good but by the end of this book I didn’t really feel like it was effective, I was just annoyed and wanted answers. This alone dropped my rating from a 5 to a 3.5/5.