My book club’s read for September was Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, a psychological thriller that has this week been named on the shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. And on finishing reading, it is not hard to see why it has stood out as a smart, unforgettable novel.
‘I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I looked like nothing special.’
The novel is narrated by Eileen Dunlop, a young woman for whom the Christmas season provides little cheer. We learn that Eileen has lived a somewhat troubled life. In the absence of her mother she is left to care for her alcoholic father with whom she has a fraught relationship. She juggles this with her job as a secretary at a boy’s prison, a place where she witnesses trauma far more severe than her own upbringing. But as she navigates this dreary life she dreams of something bigger. In between cleaning up after her father and stealing where she can she has plans to leave to the big city, to disappear and start a fresh life. The events of the novel take place over the course of the week leading up to Christmas Day. As each day passes we learn a little more about Eileen, gradually uncovering her unsettling character, which leaves us wondering just what she is capable of…
‘Believing that a friend is someone who loves you, and that love is the willingness to do anything, sacrifice anything for the others happiness, left me with an impossible ideal, until Rebecca.’
Eileen comes across as a lonely woman who has difficult relationships with her work colleagues as well as her increasingly deranged father and her estranged sister Joanie – her father’s favourite daughter. However, a beautiful woman named Rebecca Saint John arrives at the prison, and Eileen is captivated by her. Eileen, who is very self depreciating, looks up to Rebecca, inspired by the way she dresses and the way she acts. However, her admiration of Rebecca has potentially dangerous consequences for Eileen, who is at risk of running into trouble. This was a very unsettling read, and I was never quite sure how events would unravel which kept me gripped throughout. For me though the best thing about this book is the character development of Eileen. Moshfegh has created an unforgettable character, an unreliable narrator with a dark, troubled mind. There were times when I really felt for her, had sympathy for her and the way she resented herself and lacked support from her family. But for all her vulnerability I also found her to be repellent. Some of the thoughts that ran through her mind were surprising and disturbing, leaving me wondering who she really was, and how far she would go to start again.
‘Some families are so sick, so twisted, the only way out is for someone to die.’
I really enjoyed reading Eileen and found it to be a well written, gripping thriller. This is an unforgettable story, and a fascinating portrait of a dark, unsettled mind.