Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Oh. My. Where do I begin with this utterly original, completely heart-wrenching and beautiful story that kept me awake until the wee hours as I simply had to finish it? I have actually delayed writing a review because I am concerned I won’t do this magic novel justice. But I will try.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a debut novel by Gail Honeyman. It tells the tale of the socially inept, friendless, simple (as in uncomplicated) Eleanor, who’s worked at the same place for almost a decade, eaten the same things, drunk a couple of bottles of vodka every weekend, and followed, with minor aberrations, the same routine for years. This routine includes a weekly telephone call to her cruel institutionalised mother, who appears to have an unnatural and unhealthy hold over her daughter.

When one of Eleanor’s co-workers accompanies Eleanor down the street after work one day and they witness an accident, their subsequent kindness leads to some extraordinary and slow alterations in Eleanor’s life. Suddenly, Eleanor is forced to face the fact her life might be “fine” but is it complete? What she finds when the answers start to come is something unexpected, thrilling and totally frightening.

Beautifully written, sparse and yet, laden with meaning, it is both sweetness and light as well as darkness and horror all at once. Reading was akin to riding an emotional roller-coaster, but one I didn’t want to step from. Your heart aches for Eleanor and those who enter her sphere. As for the mystery that is her past, as it slowly unravels, you quake for Eleanor and what she must face.

This is about inner strength and the demons that try to weaken even the bravest of souls. It’s about friendship, and unexpected and simple acts of kindness and empathy, that come when you least expect it, but often most need them. It’s about fear of change, of the past, but also how both need to be embraced in order to alter the future.

Unsentimental, yet totally heart-warming, it is bitter-sweet as well. You yearn for Eleanor and for the light of hope that flickers through the pages never to be extinguished, though there are moments where it dims dangerously.

I am still thinking about this book days after reading it and cannot recommend it highly enough. A treasure of a story.

 

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The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

imgres-1This was a delightful, heart-warming novel about the power of books to inspire, offer reflections upon life and people as well as escapism, and above all heal those who read them – especially if a person reads the right one. Enter the protagonist, Monsieur Perdu, a rather lost man who owns a floating bookshop on the Seine, a barge named Lulu, filled with 8000 books, which he gallantly tries to match to the right reader. You see, Perdu has a gift: calling himself the “literary apothecary”, he is able to find the exact book to cure almost any ailment or agitation of the heart and soul.

Despite his gift for connecting stories and readers, Perdu cannot help himself or heal the broken heart he stubbornly nurses. A lonesome creature, he lives in a barren apartment, trapped in the past and the memories of the free-spirited and magnificent Manon, a married woman with whom he had a passionate affair over twenty years earlier and who left him with nary an explanation, only a letter which he has never read, he endures.

It is not until an attractive neighbour, Catherine, convinces him to read Manon’s letter that he uproots himself, his barge and sails along the southern waterways of his country, determined to discover the whole story of which he possesses only the beginning and an end. Accompanied by a young bestselling author, Max Jordan, besieged with crippling doubt and unable to embark on his next work, and two contrary cats, Perdu encounters others on his journey, including a lovelorn Italian chef who becomes an intrinsic part of the motley crew.

Perdu spends months cruising the rivers and learning more stories, dispensing books like currency as well as medicine, and encountering folk who challenge, embrace, and accept him. Passing through remote and popular villages, he’s encouraged to participate in rituals, traditions, dine at tables with families and, after so much water under the bridge (pun intended) step up and into the kind of life he only ever knew through his beloved books. As a consequence, Perdu undergoes a physical, emotional and psychological transformation, literally fleshing out his yet-to-be-completed story that ceased when Manon left.

I thoroughly enjoyed this love-story/coming of middle age tale and the characters that people it as well as the wonderful cross-references to other literature, classical, contemporary and everything in between.

 

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Book Reviw: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

You know you are in the hands of a masterful storyteller when you put a book down only because you have no choice – life drags you away aA Thousand Splendid Sunsnd it’s a physical and emotional wrench to let it go, even for a moment. When all you can think as you go about compulsory tasks are the story and the characters. While you are away, you wonder what they are doing, where the narrator is going to take them and you care about their fates deeply. Such is the effect of A Thousand Splendid Suns. The characters live beyond the pages – not merely at the end, but throughout the reading experience, so realistically and gorgeously have they been drawn.

Just as the sublime The Kite Runner told the tale of doomed male friendship, ATSS tells the story of two very different Afghani women: Mariam – shy, subservient, filled with self-doubt and yet, despite what life has meted out, is also honest and possessed of an innocence that is both her greatest strength and weakness. Then there is the beautiful, smart and kind Laila. Raised under very different roofs and with different expectations of their future, fate in the form of political and sectarian upheaval throws these women together and what happens before, during and after is heart-wrenchingly bitter-sweet.

Hosseini knows not only how to capture the reader’s imagination but our hearts as well. Told without sentimentality but nonetheless with an almost unbearable sweetness and pathos, ATSS unapologetically describes what the women of Afghanistan (and many men, children, families and thus communities) were forced to endure. The rampant misogyny, sexism and horrific abuses; terror, hope, the loss, the grind, the joy in the smallest and simplest of things; their constant sacrifices. Their resilience is formidable and humbling; their strength amazing – as is their capacity to forgive. By focussing primarily on Mariam and Laila (and those who play important roles in shaping who and what they become) Hosseini gives us a searing insight into not only the plight of those who are helpless pawns in a brutal battle for control of a weakened state, but Western prejudices, sense of entitlement and misunderstanding as well as revealing the ugliness and terrible beauty of a culture so few of us understand except through snatches from sensationalized news bulletins or from foreign correspondents with a brief to fill. That there are those resistant to as well as complicit in oppression, suffer because of willful ignorance and the brutality of others; the way in which religion and culture can impose horrific restraints when reduced to power struggles while at the same time gesturing to a proud nobility is evident in the novel. Inevitably, as is the case when religion, sex and gender become politicized, there are scapegoats who pay for the hubris and cruelty of others – for more than a lifetime. The damage inflicted can last for generations.

I didn’t want this book to end. My heart soared, it plummeted; I gasped, cried, held my breath and as I read felt physically pummeled then embraced, experiencing the 30 years the tale covers as a visceral thing that left me psychologically and imaginatively battered but richer in ways that count. But, I also felt ashamed. Ashamed for thoughts I may have harboured deep down, for prejudices I may not have even realized I held until this novel exposed them to me, and for that, I am grateful.

This is a beautiful, deeply moving book that I cannot recommend highly enough. It was a privilege to read and now to share.

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Book Review: The Kite Runner by Khaleed Hosseini

I don’t know why I have waited so long to read this book but, having finished it in one sitting, I know I haven’t only read an amazing novel, but had an emotional experience like no other.

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner tells the story of two young Afghani men who live in Kabul in quite different circumstances. One, Amir, through whose eyes the story is told, is wealthy, educated and privileged, his father being a strong, athletic and ethical man who wields power and earns respect. The other, Hassan, is the son of one of Amir’s father’s beloved servants and comes from a different ethnic group, the Hazara. Despite the differences in their social status, the boys were not only fed from the same wet-nurse’s breast (their mothers dying when they were newborns), but grow up together, sharing significant moments, triumphs and failures while also being eternally divided by their social status and ethnicity. The first half of the book fo

cuses on their childhood and adolescence and the chapters are simply exquisite in their observations, the raw honesty with which personal flaws are described and acknowledged, and the simplicity as well as complexity of Hassan and Amir’s relationship. This complexity becomes more evident as they grow older and, on Amir’s side at least, jealousy erupts.

Reading this section is like inhaling a flower’s perfume and becoming giddy with the fragrance… Yet, you know it can’t last. Already, as you revel in the joy of kite flying and running, for example, you know the seeds of destruction, of innocence lost, have been sewn. So you relish every moment in ways Amir especially does not and cannot. After all, what child can understand the consequences of their actions – even when they know they are wrong?

This is something the book explores in detail – how what we do in a rash moment, even when we know it is morally, ethically wrong, disloyal, foolish or a betrayal, can set in motion consequences that reverberate for decades. Against a backdrop of invasion and pending war, and as more characters enter their universe, the magical, insular world the boys inhabitbegins to dissolve. But no one could foresee what was to happen…

The second half of the book shows how the actions – both on the page and off stage – impact upon the present. Heart-wrenching, moving, lyrical and lovely, providing insights into the hearts and minds of a different culture and faith, this sweeping story of generations, masculinity, femininity, war, liberation, immigration, refugees, is epic in scope and elegiac in execution. The prose is sublime. Phrases and descriptions linger in the mind, trip off your tongue as you have to say them aloud. Who thinks to describe a sky as a ‘blameless blue’? Yet, I saw it, felt it, stood beneath it – or rain as ‘melting silver’ (that makes me sigh), such is the power of Hosseini’s prose.

At no point is the plot predictable and sometimes the twists and turns are shocking, a punch to the stomach, a catching of breath so sharp it hurts, yet you keep reading, you cannot stop. Exquisitely told, The Kite Runner is a magnificent novel by such a gifted story-teller whose insights and humanity leap off the pages and whose imagination, like the kites Amir and Hassan fly, soars.

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Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

I don’t know quite why I picked up this book. I think at first both the title and the cover really appealed but it was the blurb that sold me. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down. It’s one of those books that within a few lines you know you are going to love.

This is the tale of Harold Fry, recently retired and seemingly waiting for his life to be over. Each day is much like the last as he and his wife, Maureen (who you initially dislike) simply co-exist, going through the motions and habits by which they’ve survived the last couple of decades. Strangers in a not so strange land. That is, until one day Harold receives a letter that changes his life.

Learning that an old friend, Queenie Hennessy, is dying of cancer, Harold writes back to her, uncertain what to say or how, but making a fairly ordinary attempt. Leaving the house to posThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fryt it, he suddenly becomes aware of the world around him, not in an epiphanic kind of way, just a gradual unfolding that is calm but no less wondrous for this. Deciding he’s enjoying walking, the sounds, sighs and smells,  he doesn’t post the letter at the first post box, but walks to the next, wanting to prolong the experience, then the next and so on until he makes a decision: bugger posting the letter, he will walk to Queenie who is in palliative care over 600 miles away and express the sentiments he struggled to write in person.

And so, without fanfare or warning or preparation, Harold’s pilgrimage begins. Each shuffle, step, bunion, blister, meal, shelter, and companion, heralds a type of transformation or awakening, but also a reaffirming. But it’s who Harold meets along the way, the manner in which his journey is both understood and misrepresented by various people, that provides another kind of trial, a rest of endurance for Harold – not all of which he passes.

Written mainly from Harold’s point of view, we are also given access to Maureen’s perspective of her husband’s perambulations and the attention they receive and the impact all of this has on her. Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder so much as as alter, reignite and reconsider.

Distance from home and from his wife of many, many years allows Harold to reflect upon and view his life, past and current, differently – it gives him perspective and more. Likewise for his wife and thus the reader begins to understand how and why Harold came to be who and where he is and why his pilgrimage is not only a journey to find and say goodbye to an old friend, but himself.

Poetically told, incredibly moving, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is like a modern fable of disconnection and reconnection, aging, youth, the power of the media, love, friendship and self-discovery. Funny at times, capable of biting satire and stirring insights into the human condition, this is a marvellous novel that, like a few I have read lately, is original and lingers in the heart and mind long after the last page.

Simply lovely.

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