Eleanor Oliphant is me

The trouble with life as a writer the search for narrative intensity -the desire to turn every event into a story with a beginning, middle and end, but also to include an ascending arc that brings in the wow factor and can make people’s jaws drop open – is never ending.

I sit at dinner with my three sisters and all I want is to plunge into the past, to explore what it was like when we four were young and reflect on the things that made us into who we are today.

But tonight they’re not so inclined. We talk instead about our careers, our children and grandchildren. We talk about their travels and the places in which we live today.

I try to stop myself from slipping into boredom and watch other people in the restaurant, one of those cheap and cheerful Italian pizza joints in St Kilda near the beach, where the waiter is kindly and I can see the way he looks at us, as if we are a group of old biddies and it takes an effort to be friendly because we are generations out of his reach and he’s not interested in the ticking of our minds, much as I might be curious about his.

I sit face out to the restaurant and there’s an archway between the two rooms and steps on either side that lead into a third larger room. As people walk down the steps and into our room they appear to arrive in twins and yet when they materialise at the door of the restaurant there is only one.

It bothers me and so I go to check out this optical illusion and, in the process, catch the eye of a young woman who is looking towards our table.

I take myself off to the stairs in search of what one sister tells me is a mirror at the top of the stairs that must be causing the illusion and the young woman approaches the table in my absence.

She offers cards to my sisters and from the top of the stairs I can get a full view of the restaurant and its mock chianti style bottles with candle wax dripping and gingham table cloths and garlic hanging from the walls.

I find the mirror further back at the top of the stair. It fills an entire wall of the walkway between the two rooms and creates the illusion whenever someone walks through, there are two, the mirror image that arrives first when you’re seated down below and the actual person who appears next on the stars.

Back at our table the young woman has left my sisters alone alone and taken back her cards.

‘She was deaf,’ one sister says ‘The cards give the directions for signing. Asking price $5.00.’

No one takes up her offer.

After she’s gone, we speculate on the nature of begging and the fact that the streets are filled with homeless people.

‘How sad,’ we say, and then go through the trite polite platitudes of people who are privileged and caught up in our own lives to the point we don’t give a damn.

I tell my sisters about Eleanor Oliphant, a fictional character whom I have come to love as if she is a real person who walks the streets of somewhere in Scotland.

Someone, I might meet one day.

 Eleanor Oliphant is the fictional creation of Gail Honeyman, first time novelist and a youngish woman by the look of her picture on the back cover of my copy.

Eleanor Oliphant is a person who tells no lies. And even as a naive and seemingly innocent person she remains inscrutable to all those with whom she works in some boring office in the middle of town. She can be acid sharp in her thinking and her observations of her colleagues.

Given she has not mastered the art of politeness in any conventional sense and is not friendly towards people but prefers her own company, she is slow to form relationships but over the course of the book we meet Raymond, an ungainly man whose eating manners are appalling and who lives alone, like Eleanor, but he has a mother whom he visits regularly and although it can be a trial, we get the impression he loves his mother and she loves him.

The two come together over an old man Sam who collapses in the street and Raymond does the right thing by organising an ambulance and with Eleanor’s help gets Sam into hospital.

Eleanor tags along and over time begins to connect with Sam and his family and with Raymond. The story goes on from there.

Eleanor Oliphant does not know about love. Images trickle in early in the book where we come to understand something of the cruel relationship, she has with a mother whose sharp tongue and brutality leave us gasping.

And Eleanor Oliphant must speak to her mother every Wednesday night whether she likes it or not, her mother who is unable to visit in person for reasons that also become clear early in the book. And then even clearer at the end.

This story of a young woman’s life is a page turner, one I cannot stop admiring because Eleanor Oliphant, as fictional as she is, enters into the realm of real life in my head as a representative of so many people who exist in this world who have been traumatised and who cannot engage with others in the way they might otherwise.

I sense an Eleanor Oliphant in my own bones, even though I have worked out how to relate to people. I am polite and can be spontaneous but underneath in my writer’s head I can think all the harsh things about people that Eleanor Oliphant thinks, all the crude criticisms of other people’s foibles, including their appearance.

As if my writerly sensibilities give me permission to stand outside of myself and observe. But like Eleanor Oliphant I am not so good at seeing myself in this process.

I am not so good at seeing how I might appear to others, though I get hints from time to time and more so in recent years since I passed the age of fifty that I have joined the group of invisible people, the characters who stand to one side of the principle actors in any movie, the cast of thousands who must stand around looking as if they are simply going about their business without so much as a passing glance at the actors at the centre on whom all the lights and sound recording equipment are focussed. One of the many expendable people who flank the footpath as the actors go through their lines.

A blimp on the wall paper of life in a movie and although I dislike this position it also offers a level of anonymity that, as it is for Eleanor Oliphant, offers a point from which to observe. But unlike Eleanor Oliphant who goes home each weekend to drink vodka until she is blind, I go home to write about my observations, and it offers a type of blindness to my own peculiarities and also a safe place in which to hide the actuality of what it’s like to be alive these days in my body and mind.

2 thoughts on “Eleanor Oliphant is me”

  1. I’m not aware if Robert Burns was the first to say it but he’s the first person I remember saying it, in his poem ‘To a Louse’: “O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!” If there’s one thing I’ve yet to master of the things that might be important to me it would be the ability to see what others see in me. It doesn’t matter if they love or loathe me but I would like to know what they love or loathe about me. I struggle putting myself in other people’s shoes. I, for example, really don’t understand you. We’ve exchanged thoughts on a variety of topics for years and mercifully never burdened each other with trivia or small talk and yet even considering what I do know about you and what matters to you I have to confess I still don’t get you. I’m not sure I’ve ever got anyone if I’m being brutally honest. I’ve learned to get on with them but that’s not the same. As I said in my last comment humanity fascinates me but individuals confound me. Maybe I confound them. I most likely do. Frankly it would surprise me if I didn’t.

  2. Years ago, I found it quite a surprise when one of my teachers pointed out the degree to which we tend to idealise the notion of being able ‘understand’ one another fully. We can only get into one another’s insides by approximation and of course there are many times when we get it wrong. Still the ability to empathise and at least try to understand one another is important, otherwise we have the stuff of wars and conflict that does not resolve itself. Therefore, I don’t pretend to understand anyone fully, only a little at times, including myself. Thanks Jim.

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