Sunday Times bestseller with quirky, offbeat charm

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

‘My phone doesn’t ring often – it makes me jump when it does – and it’s usually people asking if I’ve been mis-sold Payment Protection Insurance. I whisper I know where you live to them, and hang up the phone very, very gently. No one’s been in my flat this year apart from the service professionals; I’ve not voluntarily invited another human being across the threshold, except to read the meter. You’d think that would be impossible, wouldn’t you? It’s true, though. I do exist, don’t I?’

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything. Now, one simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself.

This book has received a lot of praise. Not only is it a Sunday Times bestseller but it is also soon to be a made into a film produced by Reese Witherspoon. It’s a strange book, and nothing like what I expected, but the more I think about it the more I enjoyed its quirky, offbeat charm.

For a good portion of the book Eleanor is not a likeable character. She criticises others while remaining unaware of her own flaws and is rude more often than not because she’s unaware of the intricate rules that govern social interactions. It takes a long while to warm to her, but Honeyman is very clever with the way she drops in hints of why Eleanor is the way that she is, so that we start sympathising with her before we even realise it.

At times this book is laugh-out-loud funny, at others it is heart-wrenching. Honeyman’s exploration of loneliness is pin sharp and devastating, showing just how easy it is to go through life telling everyone you are fine; if you repeat it enough times, you even start to believe it yourself. But beneath the surface, Eleanor is not fine, and admitting that is going to be one of the hardest things she’s ever done.

Honeyman is adept at creating characters that feel real. In fictional worlds it’s often frustratingly obvious who’s good and who’s bad, but the vast majority of characters here feel like they exist in the realistic space between the two, including Eleanor. They are capable of profound acts of kindness, and they are capable of being judgemental and cruel.

The twist at the end felt a bit cheap and I didn’t think the story needed it, but it didn’t have too detrimental an effect on the book as a whole and altogether the ending was satisfying. For readers who like their books to explore the relationships between characters, with a plot that is equal parts happy and sad, you need look no further.

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Matt Haig’s new novel is sure to leave a smile on your face

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

‘I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.’

Tom Hazard may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabeth England to Jazz Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen a lot, and now craves an ordinary life. Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover – working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. The only thing he must not do is fall in love.

Matt Haig had a tough act to follow after the phenomenal success of last year’s part-biography, part-self-help-book Reasons to Stay Alive. It was one of my favourite books of 2016, and one I have dipped in and out of repeatedly since buying it. So I was prepared to love How to Stop Time. Although it had its flaws, Haig has continued his winning formula of crafting believable, hopeful stories that leave the reader with a smile on their face.

Let’s get the flaws out of the way first. The premise is interesting but it’s been done before and Haig stumbles further into cliché by having his protagonist, Tom, meet various real life people along the way; he is hired by Shakespeare and sails the seas with Captain Cook, among others.

One of the things I love about Haig’s writing is the hope. His books are full of darkness but among all the shadows there are wonderful moments of hope and joy. There is hope in How to Stop Time, but it takes a while to get there and it becomes quite taxing to follow a character who spends so much time mourning the past.

However, there was a lot I enjoyed about this novel. There are moments of piercing insight that make you pause and put down the book as you contemplate their genius. Haig has always found a way to interpret the messy, confusing business of being human with language that is simple yet astoundingly perceptive. He understands people, and creates his characters in an honest and believable way.

With Tom having been alive for such a long time, he finds he is losing himself in the grand scheme of things, feeling smaller and smaller against the backdrop of the ever-rolling wheel of history. This book charts his journey to accepting that there is nothing he can do about the progression of time; he can only try to make the most of it, and lose himself in the pleasure of a moment.

Tom is also a member of the Albatross Society (so named because albatrosses were believed to live for a long time). The Society is formed of people like Tom and its purpose is to prevent ordinary humans, or ‘mayflies’, from finding out that there are people who can live to be 800-years-old. The Society added a much-needed thriller element to the story, with the increasing threat of the Society’s founder, Hendrich, hanging over Tom as the story hurries along to an exciting and tense ending.

Although it’s fairly obvious what’s going to happen at the end of the book, it still leaves you with a feeling of lightness, a desire to go out and live life and make the most of it all. Despite its flaws, it is life-affirming stuff and guaranteed to leave a spring in your step.

Many thanks to Canongate for sending a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.