Published by Harper Voyager on March 10th 2016
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1962, Anchor Bend, Oregon.
The sea calls to Eleanor. Like the turn of the waves it
beckons her from the heart of the town she’s always
known, from her husband Hob and their young daughter,
Agnes, to the unfathomable depths of the ocean.
Agnes’s daughter Eleanor is six years old. She shares
her name with the grandmother she never knew and
everything else with her identical twin, Esmerelda. But
to Agnes, only Eleanor is a constant reminder of the past.
After a dark event leaves her family in tatters, Eleanor,
now fourteen, is left caring for her alcoholic mother,
whose grief has torn her apart. But when Eleanor’s
reality begins to unravel, she starts to lose her grip on
time itself, slipping from the present into strange other
lands where she’s in danger of losing herself altogether.
Eleanor is the story of choices that ripple through time
far beyond the moment they’re made. And what happens
when, just sometimes, bonds are so powerful they reach
beyond this world and into another…
Eleanor is one of those books that really took me by surprise. Expecting a story about family and all its complexities – joy, loss and its accompanying grief, it astounded me when I found myself caught up in a sweeping epic that took me places I never would have imagined. With lush description, and a brave yet vulnerable heroine, Eleanor is a literary novel with a dark, haunting undercurrent that sparkles with little glimmers of hope.
Eleanor tells the story of three women, Eleanor who walks into the ocean and never returns, her daughter Agnes, forever scarred by that day and her daughter Eleanor, left to pick up the pieces after tragedy strikes again. Mostly the younger Eleanor tells the story with little snippets from Agnes and Eleanor Senior that give us clues as to why this family lays in tatters, as those left (barely) standing struggle to keep moving forward. As Eleanor begins to experience strange incidences and loses time, we are introduced to a world beyond our normal realm of perception that takes us on a journey with fantastical elements, and a story that will resonate long after the last page is turned.
The characterisation was solid and one of my favourite parts of the novel. Eleanor, our protagonist is so well realised, it was effortless to root for her and feel compassion for her through every step of the journey. The different stages in her life we see her at and how well she handles the challenges she faces no matter how heartbreaking is so rewarding for the reader as Gurley paints such a vivid picture. Equally, while the other characters are not as big a part of the story, their relationships with Eleanor, both good and bad, are incredibly emotionally stirring for us to witness.
This book is heartrending for anyone who has been at odds with his or her parents or equally with their child. The helplessness that one feels when you are at an impasse with the person who loves (or should love) you most in the world is beyond painful at times and this book captures it so well. The bitterness that Agnes feels both towards her own child and towards the memories of being an abandoned child herself is so palpable and while at times, difficult to comprehend because of the actions fuelled by said bitterness, one cannot help but feel compassion towards a woman terrified to love.
The Rift as it is known in the book was something that took me some time to come to grasps with. I had an inkling as to what was going on throughout and but having it confirmed was slightly jarring for a moment as it took my perception of what I thought the book was about into very different territory, however once I “switched over” in my mind, I was able to enjoy the beauty and cleverness of this book. The prose is lyrically beautiful, and the story flows seamlessly from each storyline to the next.
Captivating from start to finish, Eleanor is a stunningly written story of a family; ripped apart by loss, frozen by grief and the hope and power love has to overcome anything.
Getting to Know Eleanor
Here’s the thing about writing a character for nearly fifteen years: You really, really get to know them well. In fact, I know Eleanor better than many of my real-world friends. You might think that’s par for the course for a writer; after all, shouldn’t you know a character inside and out before you commit them to paper? But it isn’t, not really. Plenty of authors—including me—discover characters as we go, learning who they are as they reveal themselves to us. It’s one way of keeping a story fresh, keeping ourselves from writing someone we’ve seen in a hundred movies, read in dozens of books.
But I know Eleanor pretty well. It’s not just the elapsed years, the hours spent leaning over my keyboard, sketching her with words and phrases. When you spend that many years on a project, it’s either because you’re enormously ambitious, you see, or it’s because you’re often hopelessly stuck. I’m both, maybe, but I spent years in the same rut, writing the same scenes again and again, looking for the heart of my story, and the soul of this character.
I found her, though, while I was in those ruts, while I was neck-deep in a ditch, digging my way through the same old territory. The labor was exhausting, repetitive, and one day I’d had enough. I didn’t care what I wrote, as long as that day I wrote anything but another scene of Eleanor struggling with the same old problems.
So for kicks, I wrote a scene with Eleanor in a completely different reality. I fast-forwarded through her life, through all of the scenes I’d grown so frustrated with, and I put her into a new future, one I’d never envisioned for her. In this scene, Eleanor was much older. I’d been writing a fourteen-year-old girl; I leapt forward to her fifty-seventh year. There, far from her parents and her teenaged worries, Eleanor sketched herself: She was a bit worn, but reedy and strong. She was married—to whom? Oh, there. To Jack, the boy she’d loved as a girl. But wait: she was unmoved by his collapsed features, his pleading voice. What was this? Goodness: She’d tired of him, she’d slept with another man for years. Why was she telling him now? Because she had decided to give the other man up. And she’d decided to give up Jack, too.
Writing that scene was like touching a match to a fuse. It was electric; I was ecstatic. It didn’t matter that this was a scene that would never go into the book. It added some color to the character; it opened up the space within her a little more.
For a time, I abandoned the novel and wrote these sketches. They weren’t long, not usually: a few hundred words here, maybe a thousand or two there. I wrote all sorts of different times and places, all kinds of versions of Eleanor. In one sketch, she’s woken to find that the entire town has emptied out, without any reasoning. In another, she’s married to a neglectful man somewhere in Nebraska. In yet another, her house burns to the ground as she watches.
I wrote each of these without a roadmap, letting the character guide me to new places. And while none of these scenes eventually found their way into the book—in fact, most of the writing I did in the first twelve years didn’t—Eleanor continued to grow, to resolve herself in my mind. When I found my way deep into her story—the one she most needed to tell—I knew her so well that the book almost wrote itself. Over the course of the novel we see Eleanor as a child, a teenager, a young woman, as a soul flung from time itself, and through all of it, she is wholly Eleanor, a nearly perfectly-realized character, and one who will always rest close to my heart.
Jason Gurley is the author of the novels Greatfall, The Man Who Ended the World, and the ongoing Movement series. His bestselling self-published novel Eleanor was acquired by Crown Publishing in the U.S., HarperCollins in the U.K., Editora Rocco in Brazil, Arunas in Turkey, and Heyne Verlag in Germany. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine and numerous anthologies, among them Loosed Upon the World and Help Fund My Robot Army!!! from editor John Joseph Adams. Jason lives and writes in Oregon.