WHEN I began reading Gail Honeyman’s debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, I knew little about it except that the author was Scottish. After the first few dozen pages I was confused – was I missing something?
By the end I was horrified. And that was before I learned it was a global bestseller, with the film rights secured by Reese Witherspoon’s production company.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is not just a bad novel – it’s a harmful one.
SPOILER ALERT: The paragraphs below reveal details about the novel’s plot and central character that are gradually revealed in early chapters, but none of the “big reveals” that would constitute significant spoilers.
Honeyman’s central character, Eleanor, is an object of ridicule. Not just for the majority of the novel’s other characters but also for the reader, who is invited to chuckle at her many eccentricities even as it is quickly revealed that they are the product of childhood trauma.
Eleanor spent half of her children in care, following an “incident” that she never talks about, or even – as we learn from the first-person narrative – allows herself to think about. Clues about the grim events of past are peppered throughout the many short chapters in a manner that reminded me of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (more on which later).
The biggest problem with the book as a work of literature is that there is barely a scene in it that rings true. As a character, Eleanor is utterly implausible, a crude caricature. Does she have autistic spectrum disorder? Post-traumatic stress disorder? Some kind of dissociative disorder? It’s barely worth speculating, as she is nothing but a figment of the author’s imagination. No-one like her exists in the real world. And as such, the book has nothing whatsoever of value to say.
So far, so what? It’s a bad debut novel that’s found an audience and entertained them. Nothing so very unusual there, and no harm done.
But the reason it matters is that this is a book about a character who is part of one of the most marginalised and misunderstood populations in society – care-experienced young people. She is a young woman who has experienced childhood trauma, and moved around foster placements, and struggled to form relationships.
The average person doesn’t know a great deal about the care system. Neither, is seems, does Gail Honeyman, who has nonetheless written a novel about a care-experienced character who at the outset has no friends, no social skills and a ludicrously limited understanding of the world she has inhabited for 30 years. The novel is sent in contemporary Glasgow, yet the author seems to have no interest in getting very basic facts right. She perpetuates a number of harmful myths about social services, including that workers conceal vital information from foster carers, that young people are not included in decision-making about their lives, and that trauma-experienced social work clients (whether adults or children) receive no meaningful support whatsoever.
Yes, this is a work of fiction, and the author will doubtless claim creative licence, but to what end has she used this licence? The net harm caused by the perpetuation of the above myths – myths that affect the life chances, health and wellbeing of real, live young people – can scarcely be said to be worth it because of the merits of the literature produced. It’s a page-turner, but it’s a worthless book.
Which brings me back to A Little Life, a novel that’s entirely different in tone to Eleanor Oliphant…, but similarly centres around a character against whom the odds have been firmly stacked since an early age. After finishing the book – which begins as a saga about four friends but descends into a gruelling fictionalised misery memoir – I read some interviews with the author and was shocked to discover she had carried out no research. She had simply made up a character and subjected him to an implausible catalogue of horrific events, then teased with the details for 700-odd pages.
Of course, readers will always be drawn to dark topics, and no subject matter should be off-limits for those writing fiction. But is it too much to ask that novels don’t fuel stigma surrounding and misunderstanding about the most vulnerable people in society?
By the end of Honeyman’s novel, Eleanor’s story is no longer being played purely for laughs. But that’s small consolation.