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A review of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Standard Deviation

 

I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny. I didn’t read them with any pre-conceived ideas – in fact, both were from NetGalley and I knew very little about them – it’s possibly only a similarity of my own thinking, but they seem like a match to me.

Eleanor Oliphant is a massive success; a debut novel that started a bidding war and won The Costa First Novel prize. Widely acclaimed and apparently a prime example of feel good “Up Lit” I feel entirely at odds with popular opinion as I loathed it.

Eleanor is a lonely thirty-something who works in an office and adheres to a strict routine she feels safe with. There is unspecified trauma in her background. She’s an oddball, a figure of ridicule at work, out of step with her colleagues and apparently all of modern society. She’s a cartoon character: LOL she’s so weird cos she gets things wrong! Don’t worry though, she’s going to undergo an ugly duckling to swan transformation via a wax, a haircut, a make-over and some new clothes. The characterisation throughout is wafer thin and the plotting seemed incredibly obvious. Eleanor develops a crush on a lead singer in a band at the same time as meeting Raymond, a man seemingly not at all put off by the things that every other person in the book is. Everything is telegraphed well ahead. The voice adopted is a one-note bright, play it for laughs (never mind the trauma) voice.

The idea of this being a mood-lifting “up” style of novel only works if we can ignore rape, murder, fire, crushing loneliness and abuse. The representation of trauma and (possibly) additional needs is woeful.

Standard Deviation, another debut novel, is about Graham, whose inner voice we are privy to, his younger wife, Audra, and their son Matthew. Matthew is an 11 year old with Aspergers and is described in a wonderfully relatable way and is genuinely funny. There’s a warmth that comes through in this novel, and an authenticity that is lacking in Eleanor Oliphant.

“The terrible twos seemed to have a magical stretching ability when it came to Matthew. They went on for years. Eruptions over milk served in anything other than the Buzz Lightyear sippy cup, over music that was too “tinkly”, over carpet that was too scratchy, over people who stood too close, over the smell of sunblock, the prospect of butter on biscuits, the sight of cheetahs in an animal documentary. The littlest thing could set Matthew off, and there seemed to be no way of calling him back from the land of the tantrum – in an instant, he would be flat on the floor, back arched, legs rigid, mouth a wide open circle of angry scream. They would do anything to prevent it. Graham could remember scotch-taping the last banana in the fruit bowl back into a banana peel so Matthew could eat it monkey-style. Graham’s hands had been shaking with desperation.”

Audra is an excellent (over-loud, over-chatty, gossipy) character who is a great foil to Graham (and his ex wife who seems the opposite of her) and is the stand-out star of the book. I enjoyed this novel far more than I expected to and really am quite puzzled why it doesn’t seem to have garnered more praise. Especially considering how feted that blooming Oliphant book is.

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When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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Paul Kalanithi spent years training to be a neurosurgeon. He was one of those dazzling people who could have followed any number of paths, studying literature, philosophy and medicine with equal vigour. He trained in neurological surgery at Stanford University, believing brain surgery was his calling. The ridiculous workload (100 hour work weeks) and literal life and death operations, his striving for compassion and excellence in everything he did, his relationship with his girlfriend, Lucy, also a doctor, are all examined in the first half of this book. Kalanithi’s love of literature shines as brightly as his love of medicine.

When he began to suffer with excruciating back pains he wondered if he had cancer, then tried to push that concern away after an x-ray came back clear. He got weaker and the pain intensified. Eventually he had a CT scan, “I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurosurgical resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

Where the first half of the book is concerned with his striving to be the best surgeon he can and to help others deal with unthinkable disease and their fragility as humans, their lives literally in his hands as he operates on their brains, the second half is him looking frankly at his own situation as he makes the transformation from expert doctor to needy patient.

“Once I had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, I began to view the world through two perspectives; I was starting to see death as both doctor an patient. As a doctor, I knew not to to declare “Cancer is a battle I am going to win!” or ask “Why me?” (Answer: Why not me?)”

“Like my own patients, I had to face my mortality and try to understand what made my life worth living…”

It’s his clear thinking that engages the reader so fully. We, and everyone we know, will die. It is the awful truth we spend our days not looking at and here is someone who has studied the brain extensively, who knows what it is to look right at death, someone who writes with zinging clarity, preparing to share his wisdom with us so that we may go forwards in our own lives in a more meaningful way.

“The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”

Everything Kalanithi had worked so hard to achieve in his future, his ambitions and hopes, were lost with diagnosis. He had to examine what was most important to him. As he wrestled with choosing between literature and medicine before specialising, he wrestled again. He returned to surgery for a while, completing his residency with customary excellence despite everything. Offered his dream job he briefly allowed himself the fantasy of accepting it, before turning it down. He and Lucy decided to have a baby. He wrote most of this book. In the end it all boiled down to the deeply personal, as it does for us all. The things that matter are the relationships we have. It’s family and friends and love that count.

This is why When Breath Becomes Air is successful. We are desperate for clues how to live, how to die, how to cope. It’s unfair to expect so much from a book. Its unfair that Kalanithi died when he was 37. Life, and death, is not fair.

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

 

The Bradley family are devout Mormons. Ian is the Bishop, his wife, Claire, converted to the faith before marrying him and together they are bringing up their four children – Alma, Zippy, Jacob and Issy, following stringent Mormon rules. The author was herself, until relatively recently, a practising Mormon, so it’s fair to assume the book is an accurate representation of family life within the faith, with all the accompanying homilies and entreaties.

Bishop Bradley is big on sacrifice and duty, believing his path to heaven is assured just so long as he devotes himself to serving his church and spreading the word. He prioritises church duties over family duties, which is why it’s left to an overstretched Claire to shop for Jacob’s birthday party and organise the food. Her youngest, Issy, is unwell and tucked up in bed, Claire too busy to pay her much attention until it’s too late and tragically she dies.

It’s Bray’s ability to be quietly devastating that makes the story so affecting. Never mawkish or sentimental, she uses humour and a warm understanding of the human psyche to explore each family member’s thoughts and feelings in turn. They struggle to cope with their grief in very different ways. Jacob believes Issy can be brought back to life with his faith. Zippy focuses her attentions on a classmate she fancies, the only other Mormon at her school, one who she hopes will marry her. Alma lives for football and is the most cynical, yet finds unexpected comfort from one of the Brothers at church. Ian throws himself into his ministry and tries to keep home life going when Claire takes to Issy’s bed and refuses to speak or get up. Claire, overwhelmed with a deep depression that goes unrecognised because it wouldn’t be the done thing, questions her faith and waits for a sign from God. (I won’t plot spoiler, but there was a Claire scene that broke my heart and cemented my absolute dislike of Ian.)

Writing about the beach Bray describes, “The track is sandier now, damp and sticky; gritty, like cake mix.” It’s this descriptive power, employing the everyday and and mixing it with insight, which really elevates this novel. The children’s voices all feel accurate – Jacob aged 7: “There are so many kinds of never. There’s the never Mum uses when she says, “Never talk to strangers; it’s dangerous,” and there’s the never Dad uses when he says, “Never play with your food; it’s bad manners.” But Mum talks to plenty of people she doesn’t know, and Jacob has seen Dad break Oreos in half to lick the creamy bit.” These simple contradictions are followed by larger ones. At the centre of it all, the question why Heavenly Father would take Issy.

A wonderful debut, full of heart.

 

 

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Of course we should never judge a book by its cover, and yet this cover is so bright and attractive I was drawn to it in a way I wouldn’t have been if it had been one of those beige books. I’m glad to say the novel inside is as vibrant and fresh as the cover suggests.

This is the story of Darling, ten years old and living in Paradise, a place which is anything but. She has friends: Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stino. They play together, hunt for guavas in the richer area of Budapest, and talk about escaping their shanty town. Always hungry, no longer at school, with the adults around them struggling under a regime that has robbed them of  money, jobs and homes, Darling and her friends nonetheless fizz with energy and fun. People have to leave Paradise to earn money, Darling’s dad included, although he sends nothing back. Then one day he returns home to die. Chipo is pregnant at 11, the result of rape. All the while the sun burns down and the hunger gnaws. Bulawayo is brilliant at describing this and the necessary bravado these children employ.

“I used to be very afraid of graveyards and death and such things, but not anymore. There is just no sense being afraid when you live so near the graves; it would be like the tongue fearing the teeth.”

Darling tells her friends her Aunt will be taking her to America, but when Aunt Fostalina actually does, everything reverses. Sometimes it feels a little obvious – Darling is surrounded by food, but the abundance of food means that people obsess about what to eat and over exercise or starve themselves to be thin enough. Snow falls and Darling is colder than she ever imagined possible and longs for the warmth of Paradise. Darling can never return to Zimbabwe because she has no official papers and becomes consumed by a yearning for home and an insurmountable sense of displacement. She belongs nowhere.

“Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. When we talked, our tongues thrashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men. Because we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really wanted to say remained folded inside, trapped.”

Bulawayo highlights how (some) Americans presume Africa is one country and that all parts are the same;

“Oh my God, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news.”

Her portrayal of (some) Americans as being obese, porn watching and ignorant is possibly equally unsubtle. What makes all this work so well is the verve of Bulawayo’s language, and the humour that lightens the terrible darkness. The beginning of the novel was originally a short story – “Hitting Budapest” and it propels the reader into another world with wit and speed.

In the last chapter “Writing On The Wall” some of Darling’s original energy reappears, but when she talks to Chipo via Skype, and Chipo lectures her on leaving, it sounded as if perhaps this is the author’s voice, lecturing herself. Darling is an interesting character, I’d love to know what happens to her next, and I’d dare to wish her an almost happy ending, though I’m not sure Bulawayo would think one possible.

Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois

I was sent this book in e-reader format which had no accompanying blurb, so I read with no inkling of what it was about. It begins with a father, Andrew, arriving in Buenos Aires with Anna, his youngest daughter. Lily, his eldest, is in jail accused of murdering her room mate. It is clearly based on the murder in Italy of Meredith Kercher, and the conviction of her fellow exchange student, Amanda Knox.

Amanda Knox inspired page after page of speculation in the Italian, UK and American presses. She was deemed to have behaved inappropriately in the aftermath of the murder and faced “trial by media”. Like Amanda Knox, Lily is examined through her social media pages, messages, photographs and cctv, and judged long before her case goes to court. The story is told through the perspectives of Lily, her father, the prosecutor Eduardo Campos, and Sebastian, the young man she had been casually seeing.

Initially I was impressed. The writing is good enough that it took me a while to realise that despite the occasional interesting psychological insights there’s not an awful lot of substance. It’s as if DuBois skates prettily across the surface of what is actually lurking darkly beneath.

Sebastian’s parents died in suspicious circumstances and left him alone, wealthy and isolated in a sprawling mansion. (I couldn’t fathom any relevance to them being spies) and finds comfort watching the Carrizo house where Lily and Katy are staying.

“Sometimes he imagined that they could see him, too. This fantasy kept him busy and decent, dressed, up at reasonable hours, engaged in activities that were arguably fruitful.”

I liked that very much. It felt as if it could be real whereas in a novel based on reality, not much else did. Sebastian provides another good line when he recalls his father telling him:

“Nobody is really paying attention to you. Most people don’t really get this. They think they must count more to other people than other people count to them. They can’t believe the disregard could truly be mutual. But it’s a useful thing to learn…”

Perhaps this goes against the central theme of the novel which seem to be the idea that we are all being watched, even when we think we aren’t, because our trail of photographs and social interactions can be found and examined if something happens which warrants public scrutiny. Pieces of a puzzle can create a picture that looks like truth but isn’t.

Lily is portrayed well as one of those bright, intelligent, but not quite as unique as she hopes, teens. Isn’t that most of us when we were her age? Katy remains a sketchy “perfect” girl. I had sympathy with Andrew as he struggled to deal with how off kilter his life was. I thought the way he got things wrong, and realised that, made him quite endearing. Sebastian, as we are repeatedly told, suffers from sounding sneering and sarcastic, however, it’s the prosecutor who is the least realistic of the characters. He has an on and off love affair with an erratic woman who serves as a reminder that behaviour can be eccentric, odd, even cruel, without being illegal. Neither his love affair or prosecution convinced me.

Disappointment comes with the realisation that reading Cartwheel is rather an empty experience. It’s a well written book which elevates it beyond a schlocky crime biography –  a literary book I suppose. But that doesn’t stop it being a novel about an actual horrific murder. I think I would need to feel it added some… understanding or something, for it to succeed. As it stands I feel a bit dubious about why it was written.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers

For some reason I always link Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland. Maybe because they have long been my two favourite contemporary male authors. Egger’s latest novel “The Circle” definitely brings to mind “Microserfs”.  The Circle is an exciting, innovative, successful Silicon Valley company. Being employed by them is Mae’s dream job, and she is incredibly grateful to her best friend, Annie, for getting her into the organisation. We see the enticing offices through Mae’s eyes as she is given her introductory tour, taking in the freebies on offer, the glitzy, glamorous setting, the fun, the youth, the talent. She settles into her role answering online queries, determined to meet the high grade challenge on customer satisfaction and push herself ahead.

Her job quickly develops, and she keeps pace with additional screens and requests. She’s enthusiastic and happy. She socialises on the work campus, sometimes she even sleeps in one of the dorms. The Circle seems to be modelled on Google and Facebook. It integrates all internet activity so that it runs zings (tweets), searches, financial transactions, tracking, and beyond. Mae meets a guy who is doing interesting work in the field of child security. The company aims for some unclear “completion”. Its ethos is very much one of transparency, and it sets up cameras all over the world, constantly recording, reporting, watching.

“If you aren’t transparent, what are you hiding?”

All employees are given health monitors they wear on their wrists. The company cares for them. The company cares for all, including Mae’s dad who has MS and who the company begins to treat, putting up cameras all over her parent’s house to continually monitor him.

As I read I realised how Facebook began to automatically download pictures from my iPhone recently, and how Spotify shares information about what music I listen to. How I’m wearing a FitBit flex, not a million miles away from a health bracelet. How easy it is to know such a lot about me via Google. I have always been equal parts blasé and cautious about the information I share. Or, at least, I had supposed I was. Reading this made me want to immediately delete my social media profiles and run the hell away from the internet. But that moment passed, and I facebooked how I liked this book, and I’ll tweet this blog post, and I’ll post my review on waterstones.com.

Mae’s ex says to her:

“No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing. It’s like snack food.”

This is true. It seems harmless, but is it? We watch as Mae gets sucked deeper into The Circle, and we hope that she’ll be ok.

I really enjoyed this novel. The ex who likes to make one off pieces of art seemed a wee bit of an obvious foil to the giant corporation, and Annie’s heritage sounded like a clear plot device to me the second it was mentioned, but they are minor niggles about what is not only an engaging story, but a thought provoking read.

Read it and delete.

Unexploded by Alison MacLeod

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Set in Brighton and spanning the period of May 1940 – June 1941 “Unexploded” is obviously a story about war. It is, however, a deliciously layered novel whose strength is in its dealings with smaller more personal wars as well.

The novel leads us through the streets of Brighton, pointing out landmarks and features. Hitler is expected to invade and MacLeod is illuminating on the resultant atmosphere:

“Fear was an infection – airborne, seaborne – rolling in off the Channel, and although no one spoke of it, no one was immune to it.”

Evelyn, Geoffrey and their son, Phillip, live in the heart of Brighton. They are the very picture of respectability. Geoffrey is a banker who has been selected to take charge of Brighton’s internment camp. Evelyn is a well to do woman, unused to running the house without staff, but muddling along.  She married Geoffrey “…for his intelligent kindness, for his sense of fairness, for his loyalty to people.” We begin by sharing her impression of Geoffrey as a moralistic and trustworthy pillar of the community, and then watch that impression shatter.

Unexploded continually subverts preconceptions.

Evelyn takes it upon herself to read to the sick prisoners at the camp and encounters Otto Gottlieb, a “degenerate” German-Jewish artist. He is objectionable and hostile, and yet eventually shows more humanity than Geoffrey.

The evocation of wartime suspicions is superbly done. The children that Philip play with secretly listen to Lord Haw-Haw and anticipate Hitler’s arrival with a thrill. Anti-Semitism is rife, suspicion everywhere. A playmate’s older brother has been damaged forever in the war. Phillip’s friend wants revenge for him. Games turn ever more dangerous.

As Geoffrey and Evelyn’s relationship disintegrates both form attachments to others. There is much bubbling underneath. Evelyn seeks solace and wisdom in literature and particularly in the words of Virginia Woolf. (In yet another smashed preconception she sees her butcher attending a Woolf lecture.) Otto pays tribute to the dead through his paintings. The Arts are a vital life force.

I was already a fan of Alison MacLeod’s writing before I began reading Unexploded.  I am even more so now. Her words resonate, her descriptions are clear, her ability to imagine small details transport the reader. She expertly moves the story through to its climax, and beyond. Thoroughly deserving of its Booker longlisting, this is a thought provoking and engaging novel.