Eleanor Oliphant is Completely…Meh

Posted in Books, Reviews, Three Star
on May 27, 2018
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

I should learn. I really should.

I almost never  really enjoy books that have won certain awards.

When these books also receive high ratings on GoodReads it’s almost certain I’m not going to like it.

I almost never remember this when I’m browsing for a new book to read.

I can almost never place my finger on why.

And so it is with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s a completely bad book. It is certainly not as bad as half the drivel that gets published, and so it was nice to pick up something that was actually readable. It’s just, as the title of this blog suggests, I found it rather ‘Meh.’

And about half-way through the book, I did start reading from a perspective of just wanting to know the answers and how things would unravel, rather than from a ‘I’m really enjoying this’ perspective. Which is a shame.

Eleanor Oliphant is a creature of habit. She goes to work. She comes home. She drinks two litres of vodka every weekend, and eats a frozen pizza. That’s her lot, and she’s happy with it (or so it seems), until, that is, a chance encounter changes everything.

One thing in this book’s favour is Gail Honeyman’s characterisation – which is strong, if a little caricature-esque at times. Eleanor herself, is an interesting creation – which is not quite the same as an interesting person. (See above – she does the same thing day in, day out). She is strange, isolated from people, but able to function, somewhat, in the real world. Indeed, she doesn’t seem to realise what she’s been missing from her lack of social interactions until she starts to develop a few. But even then, she’s not sure of the rules. As a portrait of isolation, and loneliness, Eleanor’s character could be devastating. She doesn’t know how to behave in the most mundane of everyday situations, and her behaviour drives people further away, or position her as the subject of ridicule. Yet, because she is so extreme (her speech is old fashioned, she doesn’t understand technology – at times she is as affected as a Victorian dowager) – any power it could have had is lost.

It is sad that it only takes a little kindness – first from Eleanor herself, with a little prompting – and then as it is returned to her, many fold, for her life to change. We start to see a lighter Eleanor as she is freed from her self-imposed limitations. We start to understand why she’s decided why not to let anyone in. Her realisation of what she’s lacked so far, and how little it takes to change that, is a very sad one. Yet, there is hope – always hope. Eleanor protests that she’s happy with her lot, but she’s open to change. All she needs is a couple of nudges in the right direction, and her life starts to transform. Again, this would be a lot more powerful is she wasn’t such a caricature – if she was more believable and a truly tragic character, not just a hyperbolic one.

There is comedy in Eleanor’s misunderstanding of the modern world, but it does feel a little like a cheap laugh. At times she acts like an eighty year old woman. But there are things that don’t quite add up. It’s stated that she went to university, and got a good degree – yet she doesn’t understand terminology that her fellow students would have used. Even if she’d never fratenised with them – something of their speech would have rubbed off.  The comedy of her ignorance of things (what a bikini wax entails, what Top Gear is etc) is enjoyable, but it assumes a character who has not only shunned technology completely – but who has also never opened their eyes on the way to work, or overheard a conversation. Additionally, it’s never quite explained how Eleanor did so well academically – not just because of what we know of her background. She doesn’t seem to have the motivation, or the determination to succeed that you’d need to achieve a degree of such high standing. When the rest of the novel is written in such a realistic manner, these glaring inconsistencies did hit me full throttle. And yes, she is clearly written as having some form of aspergers or similar – but that portrayal isn’t quite right either. There’s just something that doesn’t fit. (Though I am sure many would disagree with me. Indeed, most reviewers do).

The twist is the part of the novel which is most clumsily dealt with for me. This is on two levels, and this is going to be hard to discuss without spoilers. Partly it felt necessary. Yes, clearly there was some trauma in Eleanor’s past life, but the level to which the twist goes, and the depth of these events and the aftermath feels a bit ridiculous. Also, I think it’s somewhat crudely dealt with in terms of how Eleanor is almost meant to feel magically better at the end of it. It doesn’t hang together for me, and the symptoms of Eleanor’s self-destructive behaviour are all too conveniently brushed under the table (her frankly dangerous drinking habit, for example). It didn’t need the added trauma, as it could have worked perfectly fine being simply addressing the topic of loneliness, especially when the twist is somewhat contrite and not well researched enough. It seems fashionable these days to put in extra twists to try and elevate books to some deeper level of seriousness. Is this a tactic to be nominated for prizes? At any rate, I wish authors wouldn’t do this – because sometimes simplicity is better. It certainly would have been in this case.

So just like Eleanor seems always on the cusp of society, the novel, for me, is always on the cusp of achieving its full potential. So yes, Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine – and that is about it. Still, I’m sure the irony is not missed that a book on loneliness has gained its author huge popularity. Though Eleanor Oliphant was not wholly to my taste, I will keep an eye out for the next offering from Gail Honeyman and reserve full judgement on her authorial style until I can read that.

Three stars. (Just).

The Zero And The One

Posted in Books, Reviews, Three Star
on May 9, 2018

I received an ARC from Legend Press in exchange for an honest review.

A bookish scholarship student, Owen Whiting has high hopes of Oxford, only to find himself immediately out of place. Then he meets Zachary Foedern from New York. Rich and charismatic, Zach takes Owen under his wing, introducing him to a world Owen has only ever read about.

From Oxford to the seedy underbelly of Berlin, they dare each other to transgress the boundaries of convention and morality, until Zach proposes the greatest transgression of all: a suicide pact. But when Zach’s plans go horribly awry, Owen is left to pick up the pieces and navigate the boundaries between illusion and reality to preserve a hold on his once bright future.

I galloped my way through about 80% of this book. It’s intriguing, with a sense of tragic mystery, and you want to understand what has happened. However, as I got closer to the denouement, my pace slowed down somewhat. And I’m going to try and unpack why in this review.

This is a dark, coming of age, novel, with a twist. Our protagonist Owen, is a classic outsider. He doesn’t fit in at Oxford, and, because he’s gone to Oxford, he doesn’t really fit in with his family anymore. So, understandably, when Zachary appears – all confidence, cleverness and self-assurance – it’s understandable that Owen is all too eager to be taken under his wing. Zach pushes Owen, and at first it’s good – he brings him out of his shell. But all too soon it gets riskier, and darker, until he proposes their final dramatic act – a suicide pact – an idea conceived apparently on the basis of philosophy and how suicide is a perfect act.

Of course there’s rather more to it than this.

There are shades of Brideshead Revisited throughout, though one rather gets the feeling that Ruby intended his work to be a more intellectual version of it. And as it gets darker, the claustrophobic nature of it reminds me a little of Christopher Isherwood’s Alone in Berlin. Ruby is clearly well read, and has taken influence from a vast spectrum of literature. You can tell this in the way that it is written – the prose itself its very good. But it does lack the follow through.

The novel dips between the present and the past. It begins with Owen on his way to Zach’s funeral, so everything we hear about Zach is told via flashback. This almost works, it’s almost a confessional, it’s almost very clever – but it doesn’t quite get there. It is a sympathetic way of writing – everyone who has been bereaved will understand the need to revisit memories – but it fails to really bring anything new to the story. We don’t get the impression that Owen might be hiding anything until right at the end of the book, he’s far too parrot like in his reporting of life with Zach. It’s a compulsive confessional in many ways, except you don’t see the final confession coming.

It has to be said that none of the characters in this novel are particularly likeable. At first you so desperately want to root for Owen – the shy, unassuming person who has just lost his best friend – but as it goes on you learn that he’s actually quite unfeeling and callous. It makes it hard to empathise with him. Zach is extreme, and brash. When we meet Zach’s twin Vera, she is equally bizarre and unsympathetic. When you have a novel which is made up of entirely unsympathetic characters like this, it does make it hard to care about the outcome and this is what I found happening as The Zero And The One reached its denouement. What should have been thrilling ended up seeming a little bit flat. It should of been dramatic, but because I didn’t care enough about what happened to the characters, it didn’t work, for me at least.

Ultimately, this book thinks it is more clever than it actually is. It’s not bad – the writing itself is good, if a little pretentious in places. Some parts are better thought out than others. The faux philosophy and quotes from the fictitious Hans Abendroth The Zero and the One book are some of the best bits of this novel. There are some aspects which make the reader feel uncomfortable – which isn’t in itself a bad thing. However, as bits start to unravel it does start to become a bit… ridiculous. There’s enough plot in the latter chapters for at least three books, and so some of it becomes superfluous. And it’s not believable.I’d give the first part of this book 4*s, but unfortunately the ending really does let it down – so its 3* from me.

A Station On The Path To Somewhere Better

Posted in Books, Five Star, Reviews
on March 25, 2018

I received a free ARC version of this book from Simon and Schuster UK Fiction in return for a fair review.

For twenty years, Daniel Hardesty has borne the emotional scars of a childhood trauma which he is powerless to undo, which leaves him no peace.

One August morning in 1995, the young Daniel and his estranged father Francis – a character of ‘two weathers’, of irresistible charm and roiling self-pity – set out on a road trip to the North that seems to represent a chance to salvage their relationship. But with every passing mile, the layers of Fran’s mendacity and desperation are exposed, pushing him to acts of violence that will define the rest of his son’s life.

I hold my hands up. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book very much. This was something I’d chosen based on the very fact that it was so different to anything I would normally pick up. (Apparently, just reading the same five books over and over again doesn’t make for a great book blog – who knew?).

And I am so glad I gave it a go. This blew me away. This is such a well written book. It is a novel of two parts: the first, a thriller, of the lead up and description of the traumatic event, the second, a more psychological take on the after effects of witnessing something so awful, and Daniel’s attempts to craft a life from the fragments left behind. A shift in narrative and pace like this could throw a lesser author off, but Wood handles it very well.

The story builds and escalates as you read. We learn that, from the beginning, Daniel’s mother is not keen on the idea of her estranged husband taking Daniel on this roadtrip. But we assume that this is for no other reason than because he is a flakey father, he has let his son down numerous times before, and that he can’t be trusted not to take Daniel somewhere unsuitable. And the first part of the novel is just that; we start to see the unravelling of Fran’s lies –  he takes Daniel to a seedy pub, he feeds him junk food. Because we are seeing the story through Daniel’s memories (or indeed, his interpretation of his child-self’s memories as an adult who has already had to recount this story numerous times, to police, to relatives, to therapists…more on this later), dark hints are laid throughout the narrative that the worst is still yet to come. We know, almost from the offset, that something terrible is to happen, and that Daniel himself will survive it, but the other ‘twists’ are, in effect, told to us far in advance of them happening. It adds a terrible sense of foreboding to the narrative, everything becomes heightened and claustrophobic. It is very powerfully done.

The narrative style is worth a comment. It is a complex mix of the childhood naivety of the young Daniel, combined with hints to the emotional damage of the older Daniel, the sense that he’s had to recount the story many times before, and a fear that he’s forgetting, or misremembering. There are times when his guilt comes through, when he tries to justify his behaviour or the fact that he didn’t realise what was going to happen. This is very much the story of someone still in the grasp of PTSD – which becomes evident as we hear of Daniel’s life post the road trip. It is very cleverly, and sensitively handled.

That Daniel is a fan of the programme his father works on is no coincidence. He listens to the audiobook of it at first to pass the time in the car, but it soon becomes apparent that this isn’t the only work of fiction that he is listening to. Once the lies and inconsistencies from his father first start to reveal themselves, they steamroll. There is something very poignant in the description where Daniel, desperate to distract himself from what’s going on, makes calculations as to how long the battery on his walkman will last. It is a moment of stark contrast; reminding us how young and childlike Daniel is, and yet how terrifying and adult the situation he finds himself in is.

The prose is beautifully written, and quite often as I was reading I found myself outrightly admiring the writing style. It may be the English nerd in me, but I really appreciate the way that Wood handles language. It is rich and brilliant, and also chilling in parts. On the one hand, there is the description of the physical geography of the road trip, which carries a preciseness with it that fit’s Daniel’s attempts to recreate the story as accurately as possible. On the other, Wood manages to capture the uneasiness a bad gut feeling which creeps across Daniel and the novel, until you are certain that the only outcome can be tragedy.

The ending, for some, could be seen as slow paced, but personally I enjoyed the shift in tone. We see the enduring effects those fateful days have had on him, and how he lives under the shadow of his father – a man who he is terrified of turning in to. This is not quite a story of healing – that would be too simplistic – but there is something almost like hope at the end. It is a realistic hope, it is not the fairytale kind, there is still work to do. (Work has already gone on, of course, there is mention of his coping mechanisms, therapists, the things he has done to counteract the wrongs of his father, but as in life, there is no magic solution, these are all just stations on his path to somewhere better.

Overall, this is a very strong, dark, thriller. Not for the faint hearted, it doesn’t shy away from trauma and the aftershocks in a way that stays with you long after you’ve read the last page. I couldn’t tear myself away, and I would thoroughly recommend to anyone.

Five Stars

For never was a story of more woe

Posted in Five Star, Reviews, Theatre
on February 21, 2018
Romeo And Juliet

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo…

 

I had the chance to see Guildford Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet this week, and, my gosh what a treat.

I have it on good authority* that the GSC can be relied upon for exceptionally good interpretations of the marvellous bard. I’m glad to say that, even with a play that by rights should have been forever tarnished by GCSE English, my boyfriend and I had a thoroughly good time, and spent a merry evening unpacking all its cleverness. Yes, that’s right. My boyfriend, the engineer who has only ever read one book in his whole life** actually wanted to discuss Shakespeare with me. I really don’t need to write any more of this review, surely that is testament enough?

To set the scene: the production takes place at Holy Trinity, a large Georgian church situated in the middle of Guildford. Director, Charlotte Conquest, has taken inspiration from these surroundings to set her Romeo and Juliet in 18th Century Verona – and the audience is transported to this decadent and dangerous period. From a visual point of view, the play is extraordinary. There is some clever silhouette work at the beginning, and the use of red lights at key moments in the play adds drama. This is a very visually impactful production, and it is clear that the staging has been well thought out.

The masked ball, where our doomed lovers meet for the first time, was a beautiful piece of theatre. As the two teenagers tried to connect, the adults found ways to block them. Seemingly innocent, there was an undercurrent of something else not far from the surface. With perfect timing, and exceptional choreography, in the dance, the sinister side of this world revealed itself, exacerbated by the red lighting that would used. The two young lovers are not as free to move as they might think, they are trapped in their world which may seem glamorous and opulent, but that masks an ugliness and danger.

This theme is carried through, particularly through Lord Capulet, who is on one hand seemingly reasonable, personable and kind – but on the other terrifying and formidable. Gordon Cooper and Sarah Groban convey this well; the latter’s reactions to Lord Capulet are well worth noting as it is she who really gives the audience a clue as to his private demeanor. Her flinches and trembles give subtle nod that he is a character that cannot be defied – and that Juliet would be wise to behave.

Lucy Pearson’s Juliet is a fireball. She is, in parts, awkward, stroppy, shouty, determined, stubborn – the list goes on. She is absolutely teenage and all that goes with it. Clearly they’ve had fun with this interpretation. A very talented actress, her heartbreak is tangible when Romeo is exiled, and so raw – in the way that only teenagers can be. This is her play, she will heed no advice, she decides so forcibly on Romeo that she simply will not have it any other way. And Ricky Oakley’s Romeo plays off this so well. Again, so tangibly teenage, this production does not shy away from the fact that his affections begin elsewhere. But he is happily to be latched on to by Juliet. The accent was at times distracting… Overall his guache affections and slight bashfulness at the receipt of Juliet’s love had charm to them. He carries the more serious speeches of the play well, and there is a youthful vulnerability to his last words which reinforces the tragedy of the play.

The supporting cast must also be mentioned. Harriet Thorpe’s Nurse is a joy to behold. She stole the stage with every scene she was in; streetwise and hard, but with soft edges and a very motherly and protective streak towards Juliet. She added must needed humour – as did Benvolio and Mecutio (Robert Elkin and Jack Whitham respectively) who played off each other beautifully. And anyone who wasn’t touched by Noel White’s Friar’s remorse must have a heart of stone.

Overall, a truly fantastic production, with good casting, staging, lighting and music. Only occasionally, were the limitations of space felt, but the strong cast and wonderful direction made up for this elsewhere. There were no weak links in the cast, no falterings and try as I might I cannot pick fault.. The creative team should be congratulated on what they have achieved in this production.  

This alone was worth moving back to Surrey for.

5 stars.

Guildford Shakespeare Company

*my parents.

** And I’m not even sure if he finished that. I know. It’s a sore point. I’m working on it.