In 1964, the eponymous narrator of ‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh is twenty-four years old, living with her alcoholic father and working as a secretary at a correctional facility for teenage boys. During the week leading up to Christmas, Eileen Dunlop is planning to disappear from her coastal Massachusetts home town which she names only as X-ville and start a new life in New York City. However, when she meets Rebecca Saint John, a new colleague at the correctional facility, events begin to take an unexpected turn.
Even for those who enjoy reading books featuring unlikeable or unreliable narrators, Eileen is a highly controversial character. Her morbid self-loathing, resentment, repression and obsessive behaviour is extreme, particularly her fixation on her physical appearance and the unpleasant habits she develops whilst living in squalid conditions with her father. However, Moshfegh’s unflinching psychological character study of Eileen is exceptionally perceptive and laced with black humour. While some readers may find Eileen’s thoughts and behaviour disturbing and grotesque, she also demonstrates that she can function just about well enough in her job and everyday life – at least on the surface – which makes her story all the more unsettling and her character so fascinating.
Eileen narrates the story as an elderly woman looking back on events fifty years after they have taken place and there is a fair amount of foreshadowing before the final twist at the end. Even though the speed at which the plot develops over the course of just one week is pretty implausible, the story of how Eileen leaves her previous life behind is still gripping right until the final pages as her “escape” certainly doesn’t happen in the way she had originally planned. I also thought Rebecca could have been more developed as a character but this is likely to be a reflection of Eileen’s heavily biased narrative. As she explains: “I could say more about her, but this is my story after all, not hers.”
Having received strong reviews in the United States last year, ‘Eileen’ is published this week in the UK and could well be a contender for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist due to be announced next Tuesday. Many thanks to Random House UK for sending me a review copy of ‘Eileen’ via NetGalley.