I preferred to wallow in the problem, dream of better days.
It’s 1964 in wintry New England, and Eileen does not have it good. Living in a run-down house with her alcoholic father – a bully she mostly despises but remains dutiful too – Eileen is a young woman who drapes and drowns herself in her dead mother’s oversized clothes, and turns to an inner world of fantasies – some dark, some violent, some sexual and some romantic – to get through each day. A walking contradiction, she is meek and bland on the outside, but seething with rage on the inside; a self-flagellating person who seems, in a way, to thrive on her own misery.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh is bleak, dark and at times makes you feel pretty grimey, but it’s somehow lifted above all this by how well the narrator and storyline are conjured. The writing is so sharp and introspective, digging deep into the recesses of a traumatised mind to see all the ways it has been stretched, and the ways Eileen has sought to survive. Her relationship with her father is warped, so much so that his hands around her throat offers some momentary comfort as at least it’s some form of attention and physical contact in what is an affection-starved house.
When the beautiful and charismatic Rebecca swans into her life, at the prison for young boys that they both work at, Eileen has a new drive and focus; someone who will acknowledge her, depend on her, even admire her, and yet another sadistically pleasurable way for her to ruminate on how awful she herself is in comparison. However, things don’t go exactly according to Eileen’s fantasies.
From the beginning, we know that Eileen will suddenly disappear, leave this place she has lived all her life, and the novel alludes to this regularly as it unfolds, slowly building to why it is that she disappears. The story is told years later, as Eileen looks back and views herself with the distance of space and time; as if looking back on a person who has since vanished. While the story is, as its essence, bleak and full of misery, the writing and character portrayal are sharp enough to still make this a compelling and captivating read.
Eileen was published in the US by Penguin in 2015, and in the UK by Vintage in 2016.
Ottessa Moshfegh is a fiction writer from New England. Eileen, her first novel, was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize, and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Death in Her Hands, and Lapvona, her next three novels, were New York Times bestsellers. She is also the author of the short story collection Homesick for Another World and a novella, McGlue. She lives in Southern California.