I’ve been thinking lately, as we all do. But I’ve been thinking specifically about what makes a great book, as opposed to merely a mediocre book. I won’t bother conjecturing about what makes a bad book, even though lots of those get published as well and sometimes even acclaimed as bestsellers.
In my opinion, the fact that some bad books become bestsellers is a cardinal sin of the literary world. Any fellow-writer who’s had mega-rotten luck with agents or publishers and yet know they can write better than X or Y, even if the meagre offerings of X and Y have not only found homes with the literary gods way up there in the clouds of nirvana, but now adorn the window displays of Waterstones and Barnes & Noble and whatever other bookshops are Completely Fine about selling their souls to the devil. But no, that’s not fair of me. In reality of course it’s the publisher, not the bookshop, that does the selling of souls. And before the publisher, it’s the agent. It’s a big, intimidating world out there in the only on personal recommendation realms of publishing.
But let’s not get carried away. This blog post isn’t about devil worship. And it’s not about non-traditionally-published authors feeling sorry for themselves and reaching for the vodka bottle, as Eleanor Oliphant does every weekend. It’s about what differentiates a great book from a mediocre one. If you were paying attention in the first paragraph, then you’ll have remembered that.
So, back to the title of this blog. Although Gail Honeyman’s quirky novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, might not stand next to the literary giants in centuries to come, it is nonetheless a punchy, all-consuming book which is a great read, especially in our current times of mental health awareness. So if you haven’t read it yet, then I urge you to go ahead and do so immediately. (But not until you’ve finished reading this blog post, if you please.)
As for the other novel in my title, Lost For Words by Stephanie Butland – which in my opinion has inaccurately been compared to Eleanor Oliphant – go ahead and read it if you want something light-weight to skim through during the impending summer holidays, while you luxuriate on your beach towel and your eyelids grow heavy, no doubt as a result of the diminishing Gin & Tonic by your side and the non-addictive content of aforementioned novel. But don’t expect to be wowed.
Lost For words, which I have just finished reading, is one of those books that initially caught my attention from its blurb, and then wrapped me into the cosy atmosphere of its bookshop setting and protagonist’s insular, vaguely intriguing world. At least for the first few chapters. I got especially caught up with the childhood flashbacks, which were by far the strongest part of the book. I’d say bravo to the author for all those sections, which were very skilfully handled. But every time I was forced back to the present, I had an inner downward lurch of interest. However, the fact that I did at least finish the entire book is saying something. (I never got further than a third of the way through The Keeper of Small Things, which is one of those Sunday Times Bestseller Bad Books that make me truly HATE the publishing empire.)
But getting back to Lost For Words, never once did I laugh out loud, or stifle a lump to my throat, or feel inspired to read more novels by the same author, or have that wonderful post-last-page sensation of not being able to stop thinking about the imaginary world I have just, very reluctantly, been forced out of. In other words, all the things that great books do.
The creation of Eleanor Oliphant and her bizarre, tragicomic inner universe is a different matter altogether. Eleanor, whether you like her or not, is one of those characters you simply cannot ignore as she jumps out at you from the pages, larger than life. At times she irritated me intensely, and I certainly don’t think I could be friends with her in real life. But she was sure as hell entertaining to be with, during the time it took me to come to the end of what was a truly quirky, hilarious and gripping novel that managed to transport me into the head of a young contemporary woman who is on the spectrum, who has had a totally messed-up childhood, yet who somehow has learned to cope with her life in ways which are at times outrageous, at other times strangely poignant.
Of course the book isn’t perfect. There’s the mother, for instance. The Wicked Witch figure who is quite frankly too wicked. Who doesn’t possess one single redeeming feature. Not one. Surely even the worst psychopaths in the world had something that made them fleetingly personable, or at least pitiable, rather than just being two-dimensional evil creations from a comic book? I’m sure that even infamous monsters such as Myra Hindley, Ian Brady, Charles Manson, Josef Fritzl and others had some aspects of their character that were appealing.
Apart from that, I’m not at all surprised that the book soared into bestseller status very soon after publication. I am a wee bit envious of its success, true, but I’m not bitter. Gail Honeyman’s novel is a prime example of how the power of an author’s imagination and literary skills are able to transport us into an existence we would otherwise not have known, and, in the meantime, take us on a hilarious trip full of dark humour, wackiness, and something profound that we’ve learned along the way. Cheers to that!