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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The Girls by Emma Cline

I have a dislocated elbow at the moment; my arm is in a full cast and I’m unable to work so it’s the perfect time to catch up with some of my giant TBR pile. Last year there was a lot of buzz about The Girls, it was hyped to the max, and I remember hoping it wouldn’t be one of those novels that are full of potential that doesn’t quite get realised. The jury’s out on that one, but I’m happy to report that when I began reading I was totally absorbed. It’s a reimagining of the Manson cult (I initially tried using a dictation device as my right arm/hand is out of action, but it typed Manson cult as mints and coat and I gave up) told from the point of view of Evie, a 14-year-old who is bored by her long-standing friendship with Connie, upset with her separated parents, ignored by her crush, and disillusioned by school. She is the perfect blend of yearning romantic and brittle bravado for the Mansonesque Russell and his girls to manipulate and influence. Cline is dazzlingly good at the socially awkward shuffles and games adolescent girls employ hoping to be accepted and cool, and the faith we have that one day we will discover our real purpose, our real lives.

She was lost in that deep and certain sense that there was nothing beyond her own experience. As if there were only one way things could go, the years leading you down a corridor to the room where your inevitable self waited – embryonic, ready to be received. How sad it was to realise that sometimes you never got there. That sometimes you lived a whole life skittering across the surface as the years passed, unblessed.

Interspersed throughout, a middle-aged Evie, damaged and lonely, spends time in the company of a couple of teens who are impressed by her past. Her life is indelibly marked by her association with the cult. Her “inevitable self” is not anything she would have hoped for.

Cline writes convincingly about how the girls, and boys too, come to find themselves part of Russel’s commune, living a bullshit free love existence. Evie is entranced by one of them, Suzanne, enough to return to the grimy commune rather than stay with either of her parents. Russell is the magnetic leader, but he remains distant to the reader as the novel moves towards the inevitable brutal murders. It’s Suzanne who is Evie’s focus, although like all the cult characters she too remains unknowable and mysterious.

On reflection, the weird problem I have with the book is that probably the least successful part is the Manson story. The teen girl insights chimed with me and were where my interest lay. I’m not sure the cult part is that interesting – maybe read Helter-Skelter if that’s your area (the bestselling true crime book written by Vincent Bugliosi, the chief prosecutor in the Manson case – a book I devoured many years ago when I was a teen). I wonder if Cline’s novel was actually hindered by following that narrative. However, her perceptiveness and ability make whatever she writes next very interesting to me.

A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

This isn’t the kind of book I would usually read. I am not someone who thrills to tales of real life violence; the True Crime section in the bookshop is of no interest to me and although I do read in-depth newspaper and magazine articles, I try to steer clear of sensationalist nonsense that seems to glamorise crime. There’s a ton of that crap about though, so clearly there’s an audience.

Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of two teens who murdered 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris injured another 24 people, attempted to kill many more with home made bombs which failed to detonate, and committed suicide. I haven’t read anything beyond news reports at that time, did not want to read assumptions and theories about what happened, but was interested to hear that Sue Klebold had written a book and curious to know what she had to say. I imagined it would be a painful read, and I approached it with empathy – I am a mother of teens, I know our teens make choices that aren’t comfortable for us, but this horror is unimaginable and unbearable. There are those who squarely blame the parents  – how could they not have seen who their sons were? That’s not how I think, but how do you live with that anger against you, that level of blame? How do you endure when your son is revealed to be a hate filled murderer?

This book is Sue Klebold’s attempt to do something positive. She wants to alert people to the signs she missed in her own son (that he had “brain illness”, that he was depressed, bullied, at break point. She aligns herself with other mothers of kids who committed suicide, albeit murder-suicide, and speaks about how her son wanted to die. Unlike Eric Harris, who wanted to kill. There is a clear distinction.)

Sometimes people speak passionately and the words are vivid and maybe a little messy, but heartfelt, and other times, usually when professionals speak, each word has been carefully chosen and the delivery is dry and careful. This book is the latter. It reads as if lawyers have combed through it 1,000 times for anything potentially damaging. There is nothing here but a few descriptions of her son, meaningless to anyone except her family, a few anecdotes that present him as “normal”, a lot of scientific evidence of brain illness, and an avoidance of anything potentially controversial. The first few chapters describe her disbelief as the police turn up at her home immediately after the shootings. She has no access to news but bits filter through as she waits outside while the house is searched, enough that she understands her son was involved. She assumes he was an unwilling participant, or didn’t understand what was happening, or was in thrall to Eric Harris. But she won’t describe the actual events, or what it felt like to comprehend the truth.

There is a necessary need not to offer a template for others, but what is left is not a compelling read. It’s a terrible story, but we do not learn anything here and Klebold seems reluctant to go beaneath the surface. Perhaps she can’t, our minds protect us from unbearable things, but it makes me wonder why she wrote this.

The most valuable thing in the book is not written by her. In the introduction, Andrew Solomon says, “…we want to believe that parents create criminals because in supposing that, we reassure ourselves that in our own house, where we are not doing such wrong things, we do not risk this calamity. I am aware of this delusion, because it was mine…

I came away thinking that the psychopathy behind the Columbine massacre could emerge in anyone’s household. It would be impossible to predict or recognise; like a tsunami, it would make a mockery of all our preparations.”

Which is chilling, but feels true to me. There is a tipping point when our children, necessarily so, grow away from us and all we can do is hope the foundations we have laid hold them steady. We can’t be responsible for their actions. Klebold’s efforts to get more recognition and support for people suffering mental illness is admirable and I applaud her determination to use this awful notoriety she has to do something positive. I don’t think this is a good book though. There are a variety of assertions made – “We’ve all felt angry enough to fantasise about killing someone else.” Well, no, actually I haven’t. “Most of us can’t name a single celebrity who has struggled–successfully anyway–with depression or another mood disorder…” Erm, well actually I can… There’s an attempt to present Dylan Klebold as a “normal” teen but offers scant evidence of it and all the while we know that behind his mother’s back he was writing diaries planning his suicide, filming vitriolic segments with Eric Harris, playing with guns, getting into trouble with the police.

Why would we want to judge Sue Klebold? Why would we need to? I hope she finds a peace in her activism and support. But this is a book review and this book is not great.

The Museum of You by Carys Bray

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When Carys Bray writes, woah, she sure does get you in the feels. Both “The Museum of You” and Bray’s first novel, “A Song for Issy Bradley,” deal with the aftermath of death, but Bray has a wonderful way of illuminating darkness with humour and empathy so the novels remain a pleasure to read.

Clover Quinn’s mother Becky died six weeks after Clover was (unexpectedly) born. Now 12, Clover lives with her bus driver dad, Darren, whose silence on the subject of her mum only fuels her desire to know more. In the long summer holidays, inspired by a school trip to the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Clover attempts to curate an exhibition of her mum, using bits and bobs of belongings that have remained in a cluttered, untouched bedroom for years. Where the novel is strongest is in the relationship between Clover and her dad and in the depiction of him adapting to a life that looks entirely different from how he’d once hoped. Darren is a wonderfully sympathetic character, flawed as all of us are, and very recognisable in his attempts to be the best parent he can.

“He could make jam or something. He remembers the things mum used to make with the raspberries: cheesecakes, trifles, tarts, fools and mousses. They could have a go, him and Clover, she’d like that. He has had these ideas before but it’s a struggle to make them materialise; by the time he gets home there will be something else to occupy his thoughts – the detached radiator, the hall walls, the worry that there may be something else she needs.”

The novel features a supporting cast of characters, the most interesting of whom is Jim, Darren’s troubled brother in law who has mental health issues and is hopeless at self-care. Describing Darren’s feelings towards him – “His kindness comes in bursts and he tires quickly. It was easier in the early days, when it seemed as if it was going to be more of a sprint than a marathon,” succinctly describing the fluctuating resolve of trying to help someone desperately needy who doesn’t seem likely to want to, or be able to, ever change.

Mrs Mackeral is the malapropism yelling next door neighbour who is maybe a little too cartoonish to feel fully realised, but provides some amusing moments. Colin is Darren’s best mate who along with his sister, and Darren’s dad, form a kind of family unit around Clover. Whilst death underpins the narrative, there is a sense of optimism that this wonky group provide.

Clover is deftly drawn and is a character to cheer for. The story is heart warming whilst not shying away from truth.

Towards the end of the book Bray writes,“Grief never goes away. And that’s no bad thing – it’s only the other side of love, after all.”
How beautiful is that?

This is an emotionally honest novel written by a writer who marries real insight with engaging writing.

My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Strout is an exemplary storyteller and having adored Olive Kitteridge so damn much, I trust her to tell a quietly unfussy and moving story. MNiLB is narrated by Lucy Barton who looks back at a long stay she had some time in the eighties in hospital recovering from a post-op infection. Her husband and children were largely absent while she recuperated, and her mother, who she hadn’t seen for many years, flew, for the first time, from her small rural home in Amgash to New York. Remaining by her bedside for several days and nights, her mother offers up anecdotes as conversation; tidbits of other’s lives, gossip about neighbours Lucy might recall. Morality tales in the main. Fragments are revealed, as they are in our actual memories, this happened, and this, do you remember? And the pieces of the puzzle are laid out until, oh, yes, we see the picture now. Lucy’s childhood, one of emotional deprivation as well as physical, is revealed. The agonies of not being a fit remaining throughout her life no matter how she learned to blend in with the help of money, husband, kids, a writing career, a New York life.

“Loneliness was the first flavour I tasted…”

Lucy finds a voice through writing, but can’t express herself to her mother. Theirs are conversations where what is not said matters more than what is. We learn obliquely about her father’s PTS and subsequent cruelty, the humiliation he heaped upon her brother, Lucy’s marital problems and her friendship with a neighbour who dies of AIDS.

“It turned out I wanted something else. I wanted my mother to ask about my life. I wanted to tell her about the life I was living now. Stupidly — it was just stupidity — I blurted out, ‘Mom, I got two stories published.’ She looked at me quickly and quizzically, as if I had said I had grown extra toes, then she looked out the window and said nothing. ‘Just dumb ones,’ I said, ‘in tiny magazines.’ Still she said nothing.”

The hopefulness that she can share and connect is calmly devastating.

Glowing at the centre is her relationship with author/teacher, Sarah, who instructs Lucy to write the pages we have read. “This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter,” Sarah says about the writing Lucy has shown her. “Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You are not doing it right.”

This slim novel’s layers peel back to reveal the lumpy truths of a life and its relationships and lays them out for us to examine and recognise. Superb.

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.

Smash Lits with Dan Powell

So, the first person to face my Smash Lits questions is Dan Powell.

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His debut collection of short fiction – “Looking Out Of Broken Windows” – has just been published by Salt. I got to read it before it was published. (Yeah, I’m showing off.) Dan was entering it into the Scott Prize and I told him “It’s a winner for sure” and “I fully expect you to win this competition”. I have NEVER said that to anyone else. I mean, what a thing to say! But, that’s how certain I was. That’s how good his stories are. All of them! He’s consistently excellent. Fanfare please, Salt loved it so much they published it and I think you should probably buy it. Or you can enter a competition to win a copy by commenting here or on any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet this March, or you can “like” the Looking Out of Broken Windows Facebook page. All the names will be put in a hat for the draw which takes place on April 6th. Anyway, enough blurby stuff, on with the questions.

1) How do you organise your bookshelves?

I keep all my short fiction collections together on a series of shelves, but beyond that it is all chaos. I buy too many books (just ask my wife) and now there are stacks on top of stacks. I may have to start double layering each shelf but I am currently resisting that. It feels wrong.

2) What is your favourite biscuit?

Custard Cream. A design classic. The Helvetica of biscuits. They’re everywhere.

3) You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?

All of my electronic devices have the same digital wallpaper. Clouds against a blue sky. Very calming. So that. Walls and ceiling, please.

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4) What was your favourite book as a child?

Treasure Island. It’s still in my top ten. Perfect boys’ own adventure. Funny and thrilling and at times very, very dark.

5) Your writing is music, what style is it?

Instrumental mood music. Somewhere between Lowercase Noises and Explosions in the Sky.

6) Are you in it for the money, fame and glory? Or?

I’m in it for the words. Just the words.

7) You have to swap places with one other writer for a week. Who and why?

I’d swap places with Jonathan Franzen and use his computer to set him up an official verified Twitter account. I’d tweet a few for him, then sit back to watch the literary back room of the internet explode.

8) What makes the wind blow?

Those little sighs that toddler’s give when they are sleeping. That’s the starting point. It’s a butterfly flapping its wings thing.

9) Do you have a favourite pen?

Yes. My fancy-dan Fisher Space Explorer Pen. It writes upside down and in space. Just in case I’m ever upside down or in space or upside down in space. Can you be upside down in space?
(I am so jealous. I really want one of those. I asked for one for Christmas but nobody knew what I meant apparently.)

10) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

Probably not. But some probably should.

11) Have you ever written an angry letter/email to a magazine or newspaper?

No, but my first ever published writing was a letter in the UK Transformers comic. I seem to remember winning twenty pounds as the writer of that week’s star letter. That’s better than you get for most short stories these days.

12) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

Not seen this since the early nineties. My sister watched this and Home and Away avidly. I caught glimpses up until I left for Uni. I’ll say Mike as he grew up to be Guy Pearce which was kind of unexpected.

13) Would you rather be a bee or a wasp?

Bee. No one likes a wasp.

14) If your life story was made into a book, what would the title be?

Looking Out of Broken Glasses or No More Books.

15) What did you do last Saturday night?

Read some Karl Ove Knausgaard and watched Wes Anderson’s first movie, Bottle Rocket, with my wife. Not at the same time.

16) Do you have a writer crush?

I have a bit of a thing for Amy Hempel. She’s broken my heart many times and keeps doing so. I keep coming back for more.

17) Bacon VS Tofu – who wins and why?

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Bacon. Streaks ahead of Tofu.
(Streaks. Haha.)

18) Have you ever seen a ghost?

No. I am planning on being one though.

19) Are you Looking Out of Broken Windows? What can you see from your window?

I’m on a train as write this so I’m looking out of a wide, dirty window. I can see the suburbs of Nottingham. Uniform houses all in rows. Boxes with triangles on top. Punctuated every now and again by an industrial estate.

20) Can you make up a poem about broken windows?

The window broke
All by itself
It popped and snapped
It had no help
I tried to put it back in place
Tried but could only fail.

Is that a poem?

Oh yes, I think so. Very profound.

Thanks for answering my questions, and I wish you many sales and much success. I’d also like to say thank you for all the work you put into supporting other writers.