Loneliness, trauma and mental health: Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine.

“When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes, if only for proof of life.”

I have learnt two things in life about myself.

Firstly, I can recognise the people who love me. For they gift me books. Those who love me a little more than I deserve, give me good books…and so, ladies and gentlemen, I can now say with sheer confidence, that Gurmi loves me!

Secondly, no matter how hard I try at keeping psychiatry away from my immediate world, it has always persevered and presented itself when I am least expecting it. This time around, it was in the book, which Gurmi gave to me on my final day in Oxford, Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine.

The protagonist of the novel is a thirty-year old female whose existence is one of a fixed routine. Eleanor Oliphant works in an accounts department and her daily routine consists of work, vodka and isolation. We come to learn of the low opinion her coworkers have of her, and she of them. We appreciate the pathological communication (well, mainly lack of) she has in her world. We also become aware of the extent of her socially awkward and uninformed framework of her limited world. Many of the book launch and discussion events, in addition to the book’s original description, pointed towards the theme of loneliness being integral to the premise of the story.

Many moons ago I once narrated to someone my ideas of mankind’s predestination to remain eternally alone. Be it in stable relationships or in the company of friends…we always come back to small corners lurking on the edge of our existence. These corners are sacred for they are closed to the rest of the world, no matter who they are. The only thing that has the power to reside in these are our own thoughts and reflections. Or so I thought in my speech, which at the time, was full of fervour, philosophy and youth.

So, recalling this conversation whilst reading the book, I was hoping to get more of a literary insight into the concept of loneliness and was eager to see how it manifested in a modern day character. However, for much of the novel, Eleanor was not aware of her loneliness and when she did become aware of it, there was a lack of tangible processing and coming to terms with an event, which I would classify as fairly significant. I would have imagined that the realisation of your solitude would bring about a weight heavy enough to crush your soul and sad enough to break your heart. The anxiety and distress associated with these sudden realisations was lacking, and as such, so was my empathy for the character.

To say I had mixed feelings about the novel would be an understatement. It was hard to understand or appreciate this character, who initially did not seem lonely; rather, just socially awkward, unforgiving and narrow minded. As the novel progressed, it became apparent as to why Eleanor was who she was (and trust me, she was not completely fine). Gradually, we learn more about the character, her past and the implications of it.

The novel touches upon aspects of Eleanor’s behaviour and rationalises it through the lens of severe trauma, which she learns of through a cliched approach of a counsellor.

The issue with the perception of mental illness through the lens of pop culture is precisely this – the notion of talking things through with a therapist and approaching the so called nirvana of enlightenment. To her credit, the author makes the process somewhat painful and somewhat difficult for the protagonist, which is the tiniest indicator of how difficult it is to live with and work through mental health issues. Nevertheless, the glorified therapist and couch culture, is not the entire (arguably, not the truest) depiction of psychiatric medical care.

I suppose the book offered hope in that snapshot of Eleanor’s life, where things are ok. However, realistic nihilism has been at the centre of my existence for a while. So I shall leave it there…hoping not to break facets of hope amongst the existentialists.

So, is it a good book? In its principle, yes, for any book creating awareness of the complexities of a human condition cannot be bad. Would I recommend the book as a good read? No. However, I am glad to have read it to come to this opinion.

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