I really wasn’t sure what to expect from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to love it as much as I did. I’d heard so many good things about it and I wasn’t sure if it could live up ot the hype.
It could. It really, really could.
It’s got all the feels – happy, sad, funny, painful, heart-warming – and Eleanor is by far and away one of the best protagonists I’ve read for a while. I felt geuinely attached to her life and was rooting for her all the way.
The writing is brilliant. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at points, tender at times, pretty savage at others, and always insightful.
I’m pretty sure a lot of people will relate to a number of issues raised by the book, even if they haven’t experienced them to the same extent that Eleanor goes through them. I certainly did.
‘My life, I realized, had gone wrong. Very, very wrong. I wasn’t supposed to live like this. No one was supposed to live like this. The problem was that I simply didn’t know how to make it right… I could not solve the puzzle of me.’
And I think, perhaps most importantly, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a good reminder of how a little kindness and understanding has the potential to go a long, long way.
It’s funny how some things bring back very specific memories.
I get it, maybe weirdly, with shampoo. If I go back to using a shampoo after months/years (basically, whenever discounts and empty bottles align) the smell on the first couple of washes will always send a flood of memories rushing through my head from around the time I was using it before.
It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to time travel – which is kinda disappointing, but you have to work with what you’ve got I guess.
I got this whole memory-time-travel thing again the other day, except this time it was triggered by a book cover. I didn’t travel back in time very far – ahem, March – but in the middle of the longest heatwave of my lifetime it does feel a little like another world away.
And there were a couple of others that brought back some unusually clear memories.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton – the book that started it all. The cover took me straight back to the “beast from the East” at the beginning of March. Two days curled up in front of the woodburner, cocooned in giant woolly jumpers, the world outside made quiet with thick snow and freezing rain. The book was brilliant but claustrophobic by the end, just like the weather.
The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry – my first driving lesson, May 2017. Sat in the garden, sunshine falling on my back, and waves of scaredy-cat butterflies blooming in my belly. Focussing on this book basically stopped me from ringing my instructor to call the whole me + driving thing off. And it’s a good thing I didn’t ring to cancel, because it turns out that driving is actually quite useful. Who even knew?
The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien – 2003 Easter holidays, Spain. Aged 10, lounging on the tiles of a balcony on a blue-grey Mediterranean day, the sound of the sea lulling in the background. I was a bit unsure what was going on plot-wise but pretty darn sure I would at least finish the book before the final film came out at Christmas. I decided afterwards it was best to wait a few years before attempting The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. (Now I want to read them all over again.)
Most books bring back hazy memories from around the time I read them, but these ones just seemed to bring back strangely strong ones. Maybe ones that don’t trigger anything now will in the future? Brains are definitely weird and full of surprises.
Is it just me, or do you get memories popping out of your head like a bright lightbulb moment with some books too? I’d love to know what they are if you do.
If you look too long into the green the green will eat you up. It will wind its way around your heart and its splintered roots will lodge inside your bones. Underneath your skull, a whole forest will unfurl and make your thoughts a muddle. You’ll try to leave it, try to live beyond it, but you’ll find your soul ensnared, find it calling you back, pulling you back, painting your blood and staining you through.
You know when someone says push and a cheeky part of your brain says pull?
Well, for a long while I had recommendations for A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab coming out of my ears. So many that my brain said pull. I actively resisted it. Skipped reviews for it, skipped passed its spine on shelves, blanked ads that popped up for it. Avoided, avoided, avoided.
That, let me tell you, was a really silly thing to do.
Because it’s brilliant.
I don’t know why I was so stubborn or what finally made the stubborness stop. *looks over shoulder for the giant computer cookie monster*
But I’m glad it did stop, because this was an amazing read.
I loved the world building. Four colour-coded Londons probably should have felt like too many, but it was cleverly done, and the descriptions were vivid and absorbing without being too much. I loved Kell and Lila. They were good company, full of magical, sparking life. I loved the plot. It twisted and turned – expectedly, unexpectedly, always entertainingly.
And, you know what made it even better?
Knowing it’s part of a trilogy that – because of all that avoiding – is complete.
*smiles smugly, as if it was always part of the plan*
If anybody needs me over the next few days, you’ll find me in a London – grey, red, white, or maybe even black.
The sun is burning hot and the sea shimmers a thousand beautiful blues.
We pick our way down a washed-away jumble of steps and baked mud, beyond a sign that says not to go further. The beach is toasty under my soles and tingly around my toes.
We set up camp half way round the bay and I strip quickly down to my bikini, head straight to the water because if I don’t get in now I never will.
The water is sharp and cold, a shock, a relief, icy as it slicks across my goose-bumpled skin. It cloaks me, hides me. I float, I swim, paddle, sit, stand, wriggle till I’m soaked through to my blood, salty down to my bones.
And I stay longer and longer, a fear bubbling under my skin until the cold forces me to ignore the fear.
Getting out is the worst part because my head hates my body, even though my body doesn’t really deserve to be hated.
Somewhere lost – very lost – inside me, I know that.
The short walk back to our spot makes me, ridiculously, want to cry.
The towel is my saviour, a shroud, a thin paisley-strewn defence against eyes that will surely hate my body too if they glimpse it.
A book is my saviour too, releases me from my self.
Butterflies dance over pebbles, brush across my knees. They save me as well.
And the skylarks, they save me. They sing and sing, cheep and cheep, and they lull me away from the thoughts that circle round like vultures desperate to pick apart, literally, my flesh.
As we head back, back up those jumbly stairs, back up a very hilly hill, I try to love my legs, love every sinew, every muscle, every bit of cellulite as every one of them helps me back to the car, but I struggle to undo over half-a-life’s worth of muddled thinking. Of being. Of knowing. Believing.
Unrosy. That’s the only word that seems to fit the last few months.
I’ve had plenty of sparkly happy shiny moments with my friends and family – so so many, and I couldn’t count them if I tried. Moments I have loved and will never forget. But I’ve also had plenty of moments with myself that have scared me. Moments where I’ve felt my whole life slipping away and been unsure if I can even catch it, unsure if I even want it. I’ve had panic attacks in public toilets, in my car, sat at the kitchen table, whilst folding the washing – the list could go on and on and on. I’ve had whole evenings of crying for no reason, just sat stupidly, pathetically, snottily trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with me and why I can’t pull myself together. I’ve felt my whole body turn to lead, like it’s been switched off at the mains and my mind with it. I(‘ve) hate(d) myself through and through – more than I can find a way to say – then hate(d) myself for hating myself because isn’t that just the most stupid thing to do? Isn’t it illogical and embarrassingly self-centred? Isn’t it a ridiculous, pointless waste of time to obsess about how ugly and disgusting and hideous (I believe) I am? Only an idiot would waste that much time. *facepalm*
It’s basically felt like being run over by a ginormous and really rather emotional lorry. And now I’m at the side of the road, a little (lottle) bit dazed and confused, trying to keep myself in a vaguely normalesque shape, with some pieces of me feeling a little (lottle) bit mushier than before.
I know the pieces will get less mushy. I know things will feel more rosy. Quickly would be nice, but I have a feeling it’s going to be a little more complicated than that because this has all been a long time in the making.
Friends and family are the answer; reading and writing and creating are the answer. Talking sometimes, listening sometimes, silence sometimes – all of them are the answer.
And even, sometimes, just taking a blurry photo of roses is the answer.
I can safely say I have never read a book quite like Hydra by Matt Wesolowski.
Which is a shame, because it’s mesmerisingly and disorientatingly brilliant.
It’s a standalone sequel to Wesolowski’s Six Stories (which I haven’t read – though I definitely want to now), told in the style of six podcasts by investigative journalist Scott King as he tries to unpick the story behind a family massacre. He first interviews the disturbed Arla Macleod, who bludgeoned to death her family one winter night, and then five people connected to Arla.
The identity of the murderer is never ever in doubt, so this isn’t a whodunnit. Well, it’s not quite a whodunnit. The skill of the book lies in the unveiling of increasingly spooky and unsettling events in the build up to the murders, and a growing sense of danger to Scott King as he uncovers new information about Arla’s past.
It’s cleverly and compellingly done.
For anyone thinking of reading it, I have one major piece of advice: don’t read the first podcast at midnight after a long day at work, with rain lashing down outside and ivy tapping on the window pane. That is one sure fire way of leaving you terrified, wide awake, eyes peeping out from the top of the duvet, desperately hoping no-one comes a-knocking at the door.
I did not sleep well.
But I learnt my lesson and made sure I read the rest of the book well before my bedtime.
Hydra is a creepy and addictive story told in a fresh way. It’s absolutely worth a read.
My love for the Moomins already knew no bounds, but this little book of two short stories by Tove Jansson – a special edition for charity – has sent my love for them skyrocketing even further.
The Invisible Child is a heartwarming story about Ninny – who is, as the title suggests, invisible – and the Moomins attempts to help her. I think anyone who has experienced shyness and/or social anxiety will find a kindred spirit in Ninny. I literally wanted to high-five Tove Jansson for summing up pretty much my entire childhood and teenagehood.
“You all know, don’t you, that if people are frightened very often, they sometimes become invisible.”
The second story, called The Fir Tree, is, quite simply, one of the funniest things I have ever read. I could not stop giggling.
“‘Mamma, wake up,’ Moomintroll said anxiously. ‘Something awful is happening. It’s called Christmas.'”
It follows the Moomins as they try to come to grips with Christmas, after being awoken during their hibernation by the Hemulen as he tries to find his yellow mittens.
“‘You need a fir tree for protection,’ Moominpappa mused. ‘I don’t understand it.'”
The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers is based on the true story of the Cragg Vale Coiners in 1760s Yorkshire. It follows the fates of “King” David Hartley and his gang as they exploit the close-knit and secluded location of the Upper Calder Valley to clip real coins and forge new ones – an activity that got so out of hand it threatened to destabilise the economy and meant death by hanging for anyone found guilty of it.
In my head, it played out like a cross between Poldark and Peaky Blinders, only set in Yorkshire and much more grisly.
I had very mixed feelings about it.
I want to say that I love it, but I don’t so I won’t.
I respect it and admire it and marvel at it, though. #awkward
Here are some of my main takeaways…
Sections of the book are written phonetically – from David Hartley’s point of view – and for the first half of the book it kind of drove me up the wall. I’d see the itallics and a little piece of me would shrivel up and die inside. It just felt so painful to read, so slow, so laboured. But, somewhere along the line, I had an upiffanee. It’s not that it became easier to read, it just somehow – unexpectedly and weirdly – became a joy to read. David Hartley is mad and delusional, yet brilliant in his own horrible way. The phonetic writing is the same and the book would lose something without it. So I can forgive Benjamin Myers the fingernails-on-blackboard pain it initially induced in my brain. *pats self on back for moral goodness*
The other thing that was a joy to read, though this time throughout the whole book, was the writing about the landscape. It lives and breathes and sets the page alight. There’s lots of rain, lots of clouds, lots of fields, hills, and mud. Endless skies and knotted trees. Wild wind in your hair and fresh air in your lungs.
The descriptions are intense and vivid.
‘Finally the sky was free of clouds and stars cut through the night like smashed quartz sprinkled and thrown aloft to stick there.’
Well, holy moly is that one lovely sentence. One of many.
‘The night came in like a bruise of purples and blues and then finally gripped so tight that the sky was black and broken by the weight of time impressing upon it.’
(Just a heads up here: the description of the landscape is intense and so too is the description of brutal, sick violence. It hurt to read. If you can’t stand that kind of thing in a book, this absolutely isn’t the one for you.)
Ultimately, there was only one thing that deep-down bothered me about the book.
Maybe this is a totally unfair criticism, but I hated the fact there wasn’t really any character to root for, that there was no-one to give you a sense of hope. I personally found it hard to read a book where I didn’t feel tethered to at least one character’s soul, even in a little, teeny-tiny way. I did enjoy the moral conflict between law and order and the “clip a coin, fuck the crown” spirit – because how exactly do you live freely and fairly when the weight of the law is always stacked against you, when people can pick you up and move you on, lock you up, kick you when you’re already down on a whim? – but I just wish there had been someone in the book that I felt less than 90% negatively about.
Everybody – and I solemnly swear this – is up to no good.
It wore me down.
Like I say, maybe that’s unfair. But it’s how I feel. So there. *sticks out tongue*
It’s a beautiful and bleak, brilliant and frustrating, intriguing and unnerving story. I loved it in a way, and hated it too for making me feel kind of miserable. If I were a star-giver, I’d give it four out of five. Four for its rugged beauty; the fifth being held back because it made me grumpy. (Or perhaps just grumpier.)
So, yeah. Feelings all over the place for this one.
I can see how that’s not really helpful. But it’s how I feel.