A short month, but a healthy read pile for February. Admittedly, 80% of reading was done during one long return train journey to and from Bristol for a work trip right at the beginning of the month, but Eleanor Oliphant kept me well entertained for the remained for the rest of February.
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
I’m sure it wasn’t the actual intention of the writer, but this book cemented my ambition to open my own bookshop. Bythell is forthrightly honest about the unrelenting financial pressure, the utter stupidity and rudeness of customers, the threat of cheaper online retailers muscling out traditional booksellers. Perhaps the hardships do outweigh the joys or personal rewards of running an independent bookshop but it still appeals to me.
Bythell’s diary follows the course of a year in his Wigtown Bookshop, the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland. He captures beyond doubt the unique character of the higgeldy-piggeldy Georgian townhouse full of heaving bookshelves and dusty stacks, and also, the unique characters of the staff and regulars who bring the old building to life. Nicky, a member of staff who delights in winding up her boss and delicatessens salvaged from the bins at Morrison’s, is just the kind of character you might expect to find in a local bookshop – a little grumpy perhaps, a little eccentric, someone who might on a whim, go above and beyond to help you find that long-elusive hardback or, equally, might tell you to sod off. After six years of working in bars and restaurants, I can entirely understand where that fickle kind of customer service stems from – customers. Relying on the public can be a thankless way of making a living.
But any way of life, and really it does sound more like a vocation than a chosen career, that surrounds you with books, that brings you into daily contact with book lovers, that enables you to share great literature with others, that sounds good to me. I hope that the reason booksellers like Bythell endure the challenges is because they love the job, because the rewards are enough to make it worth while. For those who do endure and keep those wonderful, beautiful bookshops full of character and history alive in small towns and big cities across the UK, they’re my heroes.
And I will endeavour to support them. This book did make me much more conscious of supporting local, independent bookshops, and not just bookshops – local artists, artisans, grocers, anyone who goes up against the capitalist giants and braves the treacherous journey of a small business owner.
Women & Power by Mary Beard
I absolutely devoured this beautiful collection of essays on the journey to Bristol. The book served a dual purpose of saving my sanity on a jam-packed, south-bound train, and of making fully-grown, suited men, suddenly conscious of how much space they were taking up. It was quite enjoyable to watch their eyes catch the title, hover a moment in uncertainty and then dart away, as they unconsciously gathered themselves up physically. This book was like a welcome “No, I don’t want to make small talk” sticker.
If you pick this beautiful little book up, it’s important to keep in mind that it is not a fully executed narrative, there is no linear sense of discussion with introduction, argument and conclusion. This is two essays, each with their own agenda (though both centre around the same overarching theme of Women and Power) which in a previous era of publishing, may have been released as a lightweight pamphlet if it was published at all.
There has been a trend of late, particularly for women writers, to publish extracts or short collections under the banner of a Manifesto – a sign of the times certainly and a welcome one. I love that essays like these two by Mary Beard are being published in such stunning, hardback glory. It follows in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own footsteps, to print for the masses those essays which should be heard by more than their original audiences, especially this year, a century on from women getting a right to vote.
As for the essays themselves, they are exactly what you might expect from the wonderful Mary Beard – well-written, informative, more than a little on the academic side but also very accessible. The Classics never particularly interested me at university, but perhaps they might have done if the women involved were dusted off in the way Beard has done here. As essays though, the book does just fall short of satisfying. Over a little too quickly, left a little open-ended, as a gateway to further reading it is perfect. Having read a little in this particular area previously, and a great deal from the wider feminist shelves, I did enjoy this Manifesto and after sharing some of its wisdom with my boyfriend, not a proficient reader, it even encouraged him to pick it up and race through it on his morning commute. Reading a feminist Manifesto for the first time, he came home with questions – “She asks lots of questions, gets you thinking, but it left me wanting answers. These are the problems, where are the solutions?” Well, yes. Luckily I have shelves galore of further reading and alternative feminist arguments, he’s now reading Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, and ironically, receiving a similar reaction from fellow commuters as I did reading Women and Power.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Oh Eleanor Oliphant.
Working for a charity which seeks to combat social isolation and loneliness, I am familiar with many of the archetypal narratives which generally involve older people, perhaps recently retired or bereaved, usually those who are removed from what we might call “functional” society. But the stories I hear at work are much more complex – ordinary people you pass on the street every day, people surrounded by family and colleagues, who hold down full time jobs in spite of the loneliness they feel, and any other mental health issue which usually lurks in the background whether it has been diagnosed or not.
The opening pages of Gail Honeyman’s book were, oddly, joyous for that very reason. Here is a real person, working full-time, keeping herself to herself, maintaining a life, which at least from the outside, seems perfectly normal, if a little odd. Eleanor is the office oddball, not that she cares, and lives a life of routine – a routine which involves a weekly call to her horrible mother and at the weekend centres around two large bottles of vodka which are consumed alone. But Eleanor doesn’t consider herself a sad case, she rejects the wider world, deplores the stupidity and poor manners of her colleagues, doctors and everyone she encounters. She tells us she is proud of managing her own life, that “there’s no big hole” for someone else to fill, that is until she discovers the love of her life – the singer of a small-time rock band who turns her insular existence upside down. Eleanor lays out a plan to meet this man with all the precision and forethought of a mountaineer, buying new clothes, making delicate and extreme adjustments to her physical appearance, even entering the online world in order to explore any digital evidence of his life.
For Eleanor, the unlikely discovery of this man is the catalyst which changes everything. But actually it is the mundane meeting of Raymond, IT support in the office, and the collapse of a stranger, an old man, in the street. Eleanor and Raymond prove to be the old man’s knights in shining armour, however unlikely, or unwilling in Eleanor’s case and gradually Raymond and the now recovered Sammy challenge Eleanor’s preconceptions about people, just as she challenges theirs.
The uncoiling of Eleanor’s strict social barriers seem to happen gradually yet all at once – she meets Sammy’s grateful family, Raymond’s lonely mother, and the proximity to family, to happy, kind people, breaks down something inside. Eleanor cries. Yet she still considers this foray into the social jungle purely experimental, she is wracking up new experiences only in preparation for meeting Johnny, the singer of her dreams. Despite his kindness and continued attempts at friendship, Eleanor doesn’t welcome Raymond’s invitations to lunch or passing chit chat although she goes along with it all until suddenly it’s the norm. Spending time with Raymond has become part of her routine and although she still criticises his weight, his smoking habits and poor manners she begins to need his kindness.
“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 realised. I’d shaken hands a fair bit over the years – more so recently – but I hadn’t been touched in a lifetime.”
The transformation of Eleanor’s life continues to chip away at the cold, restricted character we first met until the climax of her adventure arrives, heartthrob Johnny Lomand’s concert. By now of course Eleanor has become our brave and unlikely heroine. The glimpses of her dark past have pulled at our heartstrings – the annual visit from a social worker, the imprisoned mother who bullies and berates her from afar, the cold history of foster families and abusive relationships. Eleanor needs a happy ever after, and we want it for her desperately but Honeyman has left no wiggle room for high hopes. The tweets from Johnny have shown his true colours, to us if not to Eleanor, and as we turn the page to part two we’re left in no doubt of the “Bad Days” to come.
I won’t divulge too much about these Bad Days because it really is chock-full of spoilers but I can at least giveaway that the inevitable played out at the concert.
“I stood and waited, waited throughout another song. And another. But still he didn’t see me. And gradually, as I stood there beyond the lights, the music beating off my body without getting in and crowd unable to permeate the layer of aloneness that encased me, encases me, I began to realise the truth. I blinked, again and again, as though my eyes were trying to clear the view before them, and it crystallised.
I was a thirty-year-old woman with a juvenile crush on a man whom I didn’t know, and would never know. I had convinced myself he was the one, that he would help to make me normal, fix the things that were wrong in my life. Someone to help me deal with Mummy, block out her voice when she whispered in my ear, telling me I was bad, I was wrong, I wasn’t good enough. Why had I thought that?”
The realisation brings Eleanor to a very dark place but it is from this rock bottom that she must untangle all those twisted secrets and repressed histories. Mercifully, she is not alone, throughout the bad days Raymond is again an unlikely knight in shining armour.
This book absolutely floored me. I lost count of how often I cried, brokenhearted by the most flippant, throwaway moments of sadness, like unexpectedly feeling the weight of a human hand, like suddenly seeing an old drunk on the street as beloved to someone, someone who would give him a beautiful, cosy tomato red jumper.
I didn’t know what to expect from Eleanor Oliphant, didn’t expect to enjoy her story, but she has become one of the great literary heroines on my bookshelf. Her humour, her bravery, her innocent hope define her as wonderfully as her dark history also must.
One thing which this book reminded me of, which I’m not going to allow myself to forget again, is something I once read on Twitter, or in a newspaper or heard at a lecture:
“We need to stop asking people ‘what’s wrong with you?’ and start asking ‘what happened to you?”