Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

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Paperback review by Naomi

Eileen might ‘look like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography’ but if that was all you took her for, you’d be very much mistaken.

…I deplored silence. I deplored stillness. I hated almost everything. I was very unhappy and angry all the time. I tried to control myself, and that only made me more awkward, unhappier, and angrier. I was like Joan of Arc, or Hamlet, but born into the wrong life – the life of a nobody, a waif, invisible. There’s no better way to say it: I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.

‘Back then’ is 50 years previously when 24-year-old, Eileen, (we do not learn her new name) still lived at home with her ex-cop, alcoholic father. After the death of her mother, the house became dirty, dusted and crowded with things. ‘I remember it like those photos of homes in the desert ravaged by nuclear testing.’ Her father is cruel and, in retrospect (ironically), reminds her of the boys in the juvenile correctional facility where she works as a secretary.

Eileen is a fascinating character. She’s obsessed with her body, or what other people are thinking about her body. She puts her paycheck in her small bosom for safekeeping; she wears lipstick to hide the natural colour of her lips which ‘were the same color as my nipples’; she struggles with smiling believing the inside of her mouth is as private as between her legs, and on the day of Dr. Frye’s retirement party, seemingly as a form of revenge against the invisibility she feels in his presence, this scenario unfolds:

At some point I got an itch in my underwear, and since there was nobody to see me, I stuck my hand up my skirt to get at it. As swaddled as they were, my nether regions were difficult to scratch. So I had to dig my hand down the front of my skirt, under the girdle, inside the underwear, and when the itch had been relieved, I pulled my fingers out and smelled them. It’s a natural curiosity, I think, to smell one’s fingers. Later, when the day was done, these were the fingers I extended, still unwashed, to Dr. Frye when I wished him a happy retirement on his way out the door.

She is also intrigued by other people but in a very dark, disturbing way. She tells us that she prefers the ‘rough’ boys at the facility – ‘…their crimes seemed far more normal’ – than the privileged boys who strangled siblings and tortured animals.

One of Eileen’s roles is to oversee the visits from friends and family. She tells us of one where a woman comes to visit the boy who raped her.

No one had ever tried to rape me, after all. I’d always believed that my first time would be by force. Of course I hoped to be raped by only the most soulful, gentle, handsome of men, somebody who was secretly in love with me – Randy, ideally.

The aptly named prison guard, Randy, is not secretly in love with Eileen, he barely registers her, even when she sits outside his house at weekends or walks past him on the street. If ever there was a character that would benefit from a visit to Doctor Freud, Eileen is the one.

The novel’s not just a character study though, it tells the tale of the week before Christmas, 1964 when Eileen’s life changes dramatically. ‘This is the story of how I disappeared.’

Eileen has already begun fantasising about disappearing, moving to New York City, where life was guaranteed to be more exciting when Rebecca Saint John arrives at the institution and in Eileen’s life.

Saint John is the facility’s first ever director of education, fresh from Harvard, blonde, fashionable, beautiful. Eileen is tasked with showing Saint John to her locker. The combination – 32, 24, 34 – leads Saint John to make a joke about her measurements which makes Eileen blush. A one-sided conversation about small breasts ensues until Eileen builds up courage and tells Rebecca, “I completely agree with you”.

What is that old saying? A friend is someone who helps you hide the body – that was the gist of this new rapport. I sensed it immediately. My life was going to change. In this strange creature, I’d met my match, my kindred spirit, my ally. Already I wanted to extend my hand, slashed and ready to be shaken in a pact of blood, that was how impressionable and lonely I was. I kept my hands in my pockets, however. This marked the beginning of the dark bond which now paves the way for the rest of my story.

The rest I’ll leave for you to discover yourself, needless to say it is gripping, twisty and very dark indeed.

Eileen is a taut, tense, beautifully disturbing read from a highly talented new writer. It’s a dream of a book if you’re a fan of unlikeable characters or of literary psychological thrillers with unreliable first-person narrators. An absolute gem.

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Naomi blogs at The Writes of Women where this review first appeared.

Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen (Vintage, 2016). 978-1784701468, 272 pp., paperback.

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