Monday, 14 May 2018

Being fine is not enough

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine Eleanor Oliphant is odd. People don't understand her and she finds it difficult to make friends. We very quickly learn that she's had at least one abusive experience, since she turned up for a job interview "with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm." But there are little clues in the text that lead us to suspect that Eleanor has suffered something much more dreadful, and this has probably influenced her behaviour and self-imposed loneliness. Things start to change when Eleanor finds the love of her life wearing "the bottom button of his waistcoat unfastened", and when she develops a friendship with the office IT guy, Raymond, who wears "a T-shirt showing a cartoon dog, lying on top of its kennel".

Set in Glasgow, the story is narrated by Eleanor, but the expressions she uses and her way of talking give the impression that something is not quite right. She says things that don't make sense, suggesting her version of events is not necessarily reliable. Her language is very formal, and her use of the word "Mummy" is particularly unsettling.

The story was tragicomic, in that it made me both laugh and cry. Eleanor's description of Hell was very amusing: "the soundtrack to the screaming, the pitchfork action and the infernal wailing of damned souls would be a looped medley of 'show tunes' drawn from the annals of musical theatre." Her dislike of geraniums took me right back to childhood: "that rich, sticky scent when you brush against them, a brackish, vegetable smell that's the opposite of floral." And then I shed a tear quite a few times with Eleanor, even tho' I was uncertain of just what she was crying about.

It's Gail Honeyman's first novel, and just like another favourite of mine, Notes on a Scandal , its treatment of loneliness had an emotional appeal. Eleanor Oliphant thought she was fine but I wanted her to be more than that. I wanted her to be happy.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Bally foolishness

Three Men in a Boat (Three Men, #1) There were four of them --- George, and William Samuel Harris, and J., and Montmorency the dog. They were sitting in J.'s lodgings, comparing their ailments, and reached the conclusion that they needed rest, a "change of scene, and absence of the necessity for thought." Two weeks in a hired rowing boat on the River Thames was chosen as the best remedy, although Montmorency thought "the whole thing bally foolishness". The three friends packed their bags and set off to enjoy themselves.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) follows the narrator J. and George and Harris from Kingston to Oxford. There is enough information for those who wish to follow in the men's wake, but the book is not really about the traveling. It is about friendship. The men argue, lose their tempers and break things, but at the end of their vacation they have had a wonderful time.

Above all, the book is funny. It is one of the funniest book I've read, managing to not only provide chuckles and guffaws throughout, but in several places causing me to laugh out loud. The best episode, I thought, was J.'s explanation of why neither "paraffine" oil nor cheese should ever be included in a list of items to be taken on a boat trip. His retelling of Harris's experience with swans came a close second. Jerome's writing occasionally lurches from the comic and vernacular to poetic musings on landscape, but this serves to throw the humour into relief.

Anyone who has been away with a group of mates will relate to the book. If the holiday was spent outdoors in Britain, even more so. I believe that is what continues to make Three Men in a Boat so popular nearly 130 years after it was written. It so wonderfully held a mirror up to the plucky British character, the types who, no matter how dreadful the situation in which they found themselves, insisted "We had come out for a fortnight's enjoyment on the river, and a fortnight's enjoyment on the river we meant to have.