by Gail Honeyman, 2017
A most-interesting novel! It’s about a 30-year old girl, living a very lonely life in Glasgow. She has a boring office job that pays the bills, but her co-workers don’t like her and often gossip about her. She buys vodka every Friday and stays drunk through the weekend. She has a scar on one side of her face caused by a fire, that we learn was set by her mother (Mummy). Her Mummy calls her every Wednesday and is completely evil and cruel to her. Her life begins to change when Raymond, the IT guy who fixed her computer at work, befriends her. They see a man collapse on the sidewalk and Raymond assists him but also pulls Eleanor in to help. The man (Sammy) ends up being the nicest person and between the two of them (Raymond and Sammy), they show Eleanor what it means to be loved.
However, Eleanor thinks she is in love with a musician she saw perform. She plans for them to meet, and prepares herself for the meeting by getting a bikini wax, her nails painted green, a haircut, make-up, a new wardrobe. At the planned meeting (a concert at which she is in the front row) she realizes he doesn’t know she exists, he never even looks at her, and moreover, he is a jerk. When they pump dry ice onto the stage, she has a nightmarish reaction, a flashback, to the horrible occurrence in her childhood. We still don’t know exactly what happened but the reader knows it must have been utterly devastating. Eleanor goes into a tailspin and is lying naked in her apartment trying to drink herself to death and if that doesn’t work, she has pills, a knife, and drain cleaner available. After missing work for a few days, Raymond finds out where she lives and pounds on the door until she manages to answer it, and saves her life. He cleans her up, washes her sheets, feeds her, makes her drink water, takes care of her. Then he encourages her to see a doctor, who gets her to go to counseling, and through the expert therapist (a young lady named Maria Temple), and the care of Raymond, Eleanor comes to terms with what happened to her. Raymond also gives Eleanor a cat, which she just adores. It was a cat that someone tried to burn and Raymond’s roommate rescued it.
The big twist in the book is that (spoiler alert) we discover at the very end from a newspaper article on the horrible occurrence that happened when Eleanor was 10…
…The spokesman confirmed that 29-year-old Smyth started the fire deliberately, and died at the scene as a result of smoke inhalation as she fled the property. Tests on both children revealed that a sedative had been administered, and provided evidence that they had been physically restrained.
Our report understands that Eleanor Smyth initially managed to free herself and escape the blaze. Neighbors then reported seeing the badly injured ten-year-old re-entering the house before the emergency services arrived. Firefighters allegedly found her attempting to open a locked wardrobe in an upstairs bedroom. The body of her four-year-old sister was recovered inside.
So, we learn at the very end that all her miserable phone conversations with her Mummy were not real – totally imagined by Eleanor. All this time, we think that her Mummy is calling her from some prison, and spewing all kinds of evil, hateful stuff, and why doesn’t Eleanor just stop taking her calls. Totally unexpected! Like Christie says, “Never saw it coming and then it made so much sense. Her mom was bad and stayed in her head even after she was dead.”
Her mom was SO BAD! Here are some examples of things she said to Eleanor in these imaginary phone conversations, which we don’t know are imaginary at the time they are occurring:
“…But you’re not smart, Eleanor. You’re someone who lets people down. Someone who can’t be trusted. Someone who failed. Oh yes, I know exactly what you are. And I know how you’ll end up. Listen, the past isn’t over. The past is a living thing. Those lovely scars of yours-they’re from the past, aren’t they? And yet they still live on your plain little face. Do they still hurt?”
I shook my head, but said nothing.
“Oh, they do–I know they do. Remember how you got them, Eleanor. Was it worth it? For her? Oh, there’s room on your other cheek for a bit more hurt, isn’t there? Turn the other cheek for Mummy, Eleanor, there’s a good girl.”
And then there was only silence.
I like this sentence after Raymond briefly touches her shoulder on his way back to their table after he “nipped to the Gents:”
I felt the heat where his hand had been; it was only a moment, but it left a warm imprint, almost as though it might be visible. A human hand was exactly the right weight, exactly the right temperature for touching another person, I realized.
Here’s another conversation with her Mummy, which happened on a Monday night when Eleanor was not expecting her, and her Mummy wanted to help her with her project (the project to meet the musician):
…”Well, darling . . . if you’re sure. But I’m very efficient, you know? And, to be frank, you’re a bit of a bumbling idiot at times.”
I sighed, as quietly as I could.
“And furthermore,” she went on, “I’m getting rather impatient now. Things need to move forward with this man, you know? A bit more action, Eleanor–that’s what’s needed, darling.” She was starting to sound calmer now.
“Yes, Mummy. Yes, you’re absolutely right of course.” It was true that, since the time when I’d first seen the musician, my interest and therefore my progress had been subsumed by more pressing matters over the last few weeks. There were so many other things to be getting on with–Raymond, the new job, Sammy and his family . . . But she was right.
“I’ll try to move things along a bit faster,” I said. That had placated her, I hoped, and she started to say her good-byes.
“Oh wait, Mummy–hang on a second. You said there were two things–what was the second thing you were thinking about?”
“Oh yes,” she said, and I heard her dismissive sideways hiss of cigarette smoke. “It was just that I wanted to tell you that you’re a pointless waste of human tissue. That was all. Bye then, darling!” she said, bright as a knife.
Fortunately, Eleanor is such a lovable creature – and so quirky – and most of the book is her coming out of her shell, learning that she can be loved for who she is. Raymond is a wonderful hero, and is her knight in shining armor, a lovable character. Eleanor talks like old-English classic literature – that’s how her Mummy taught her to be, and she doesn’t seem to care at all that her co-workers gossip about her, laugh at her. Raymond is the first person to befriend her, scars and weirdness and all. She doesn’t like him at first – he smokes, he eats with his mouth open, he dresses like a slob. But by the end of the book, they are true friends and his friendship has brought her from darkness to light.