Thursday, 22 September 2016

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Book Review

Review of Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

"I was a shoplifter, a pervert, you might say, and a liar of course, but nobody knew that."

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (Vintage) is the 2016 Man Booker Prize short list option that's got everyone talking. Some are praising the novel and hoping it wins the award, while others say it doesn't deserve to be on the list at all.

It's a controversial choice and definitely a controversial book, dividing it's readers. So this, of course, made me want to read it.


The Christmas season offers little cheer for Eileen Dunlop, an unassuming yet disturbed young woman trapped between her role as her alcoholic father's carer in his squalid home and her day job as a secretary at the boys' prison, filled with its own quotidian horrors. Consumed by resentment and self-loathing, Eileen tempers her dreary days with perverse fantasies and dreams of escaping to the big city. In the meantime she fills her nights and weekends with shoplifting, stalking a handsome prison guard named Randy, and cleaning up her increasingly deranged father's messes. When the beautiful, charismatic Rebecca Saint John arrives on the scene as the new counsellor at the prison, Eileen is enchanted and unable to resist what appears to be a miraculously budding friendship. In a Hitchcockian twist, her affection for Rebecca pulls her into complicity in a crime that surpasses her wildest imaginings.

Eileen is unique to anything I've ever read before. Told by an older Eileen looking back on how she came to leave her home town in the '60s, it's a brutally honest character study of an angry and lonely girl.

And I think that's the problem for some readers; it really is mainly a very long character study of Eileen, who I happen to think is kind of disgustingly wonderful. I can see why others wouldn't like this though, not only is Eileen deliberately unlikable, but not much 'action' happens until the last 15% of the book. Readers expecting a complex thriller are really just studying the inner workings of Eileen's mind and her rather sad days.

Personally, I think the character of Eileen is a brilliant creation. She's a mixture of opposites and trapped in her dreary life mainly by her own cowardice. She's a repressed prude but also obsessed with sex, she's terrified of her offending body odour but never showers, she's obsessed with her looks but makes herself ugly, she's filled with hate but projects a permanent bland "death mask" to the world. She's a disturbed girl in a rather boring body.

"That was how I imagined my anatomy back then, brain like tangled yarn, body like an empty vessel, private parts like some strange foreign country."

A lot of people have been put off of this book because Eileen is kind of disgusting; she's constantly talking about her body parts and functions, and goes into details about her constant struggle with bowel movements. I think she'd be a much happier person if someone just gave her some bran.

If this sounds like Eileen is the self-obsessed ramblings of disturbed young woman, then you're right. But what stops the character of Eileen from becoming irritating is the fact that the novel is narrated by an older, wiser Eileen, who is quite clearly laughing at her old self. While I wouldn't say it makes it a light read, she injects a bit of humour and also pity into the pathetic character.

While I did like the intense look at Eileen, it did go on for a long time and the 'Hitchcockian' twist that she gets dragged into only happens right at the end. The writing in that section was a little rushed. It was as though Moshfegh became so obsessed with putting every aspect of Eileen's character down on paper that she forgot she had to put some sort of action in, so shoved a bit of a thriller in at the end. I also don't think the ending deserves the term 'Hitchcockian;' it's something I didn't see coming, but I don't think it's on that level.

I also would have liked to have read some more about the other characters, especially Rebecca. She's so fascinating to Eileen that I felt the same interest and wanted to know more, but, though she's wonderfully written, she's still a bit part.

While I have issues with this book, I'm giving it quite a high rating because of the level of Moshfegh's writing, which is so bare and honest but also runs with a touch of humour.

I don't think Eileen deserves to win the Man Booker Prize, but I definitely think it deserves to be listed; it's so different to anything else on there and anything else I've read before.

My Rating: 4 Stars

Review of Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Do you agree? What do you think of Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

I received Eileen on a read to review basis via NetGalley. My thanks to the author and publisher.

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