Written by Ottessa Moshfegh and published by Penguin Press in 2015, Eileen was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016, winning the Hemingway Foundation Award in the same year. Having never seen or read Moshfegh’s novels before, it was the review by The Times, written on the front cover that enticed me to pick up the novel from the shelf; “A taut psychological thriller, rippled with comedy as black as a raven’s wing” – ‘just the book for me’.
“I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus,” begins Eileen, “reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair.” At 24, Eileen Dunlop lives with her alcoholic father in their home left filthy after the death of her mother. Working as a secretary at a young boys’ prison, Eileen puts most of her efforts into loathing her co-workers and dreaming of perverse escapist fantasies. When she meets the beautiful Rebecca Saint John, the new counsellor at Moorehead, Eileen is pulled into complicity in a crime beyond any stretch of her imagination.
The novel is narrated by an older and seemingly wiser 78-year-old Eileen, reminiscing over a single week from her younger years. The narrative is clouded with an older hindsight preventing her younger self from appearing clichéd, and at first, this mode of storytelling seems quite appealing; a steady stream of clues from Eileen, alluding to something big that is lurking around the corner, but never quite letting the secret slip. However, in holding so much of this back, nothing much seems to really happen for the most part of the novel and the only semblance of a plot is when Rebecca arrives at the prison and Eileen’s obsession begins. I don’t mean to say that nothing ever happens in the novel, but it wasn’t until the novel’s conclusion that I thought ‘yes! The plot is finally taking off!’. It’s almost as if Moshfegh had a quick rush at the end to finally pack in a bit of action. The plot drags and readers are left waiting for the next thing to happen, not so much due to ample amounts of suspense, but rather because of the physical aspect of pages running out.
Throughout the novel, we are introduced to a variety of characters who almost dip in and out of significance. It is clear that Moshfegh has put all her efforts into Eileen, an undoubtedly pitiful and interesting character whose favourite topic is, well, Eileen. Let me elaborate on that…. Eileen cannot bear to skimp on the details – we learn that she keeps a dead field mouse in her glove box, has endless fantasies about her death, tells stories of severe sexual and emotional repression. She tells us in so many different ways how unattractive and invisible she was, yet we get the sense that her lack of allure was subconsciously intentional; “And at the time, I didn’t believe my body was really mine to navigate. I figured that was what men were for.” Eileen no doubt has sexual desire, she just never seems to figure out how to satisfy it, leaving her hoping “to be raped by only the most soulful, gentle, and handsome of men, somebody who was secretly in love with me.” Her one pleasure, as exciting as it gets, happens in the basement after a lengthy visit to the toilet: “Empty and spent and light as air, I lay at rest, silent, flying in circles, my heart dancing, my mind blank”. Eileen pours out her psyche for the readers, leading to an uncomfortable but intriguing read (and why does that make me like her so much?!) That being said, this heavy focus on Eileen made me feel like I was reading more of a character study. If you’re into that then great…but I thought I was supposed to be reading a thriller?
As a psychological thriller, a genre that thrives on turn after turn of shocking revelations, for me, the plot seems to fall short and the drive is almost at a standstill right up until the very end. That being said, as a novel of physical and psychological darkness, Moshfegh smashes it out the park, and Eileen becomes a novel definitely worth reading for anyone wanting to be plunged into the inner, darkest thoughts of a troubled, self-destructive character.
Review: 3.5/5 stars.