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Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (Book Review)

“Some families are so sick, so twisted, the only way out is for someone to die.” ― Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen

From the opening pages of Eileen, it is clear that Ottessa Moshfegh’s prose is lyrically taut and concise. It rolls off the tongue at breakneck speeds, literary in style and unashamedly candid. The action takes place in 1964, in a sleepy New England town, told through the voice of the older Eileen Dunlop who is looking back to her younger self. The town in question is only ever referred to as X-ville, for the older Eileen is perhaps still in hiding and unable to talk freely about her past. This is intriguing, for early on we are wondering what she is still hiding from and what her younger self has done.

The first half of the book is all about Eileen, her drunken and abusive ex-cop of a father, and her dead-end job working at a boys prison called Moorehead. She talks of her boredom, of her fear of sex and intimacy, of her strange expectation that her first sexual experience will most likely be as a result of rape, and of her fixation on others, of the fold and crevices of the guards clothes and what is hidden beneath, of her love and passion for one of the guards called Randy, and of course of her boredom and desire to escape the perils of her own life. Here Moshfegh lets her central character talk openly, an inner monologue of things most people keep to themselves, but uncensored we hear how Eileen thinks about the folds of her own virgin nether regions and of her fascination with the wetness and pinkness of people’s mouths, for it is clear Eileen harbors a repressed sexuality, yet at the same time is repulsed by her own desires, and those of the people around her. Put simply she is lost and trapped in the mundanity of her own life and it isn’t until the arrival of a Harvard graduate newly in charge of the boys education called Rebecca Saint John, that she feels she has found a kindred spirit.

Rebecca’s character is full of contradiction, intelligent, yet wry, popular and attractive, yet nerdy and a bit of an outsider like Eileen. They hit it off immediately with a sort of low-key effervescence, yet it is never clear from the start how sincere Rebecca is towards Eileen, and in fact Eileen herself is often internally seeking answers and questioning Rebecca’s motives, wondering if it is all just a display of mockery and disdain. But against the backdrop of her drunken father and her sorry life at home, and her poor appetite and even worse diet, Rebecca appears to be at least a momentary rest bite from the reality of her own life. But towards the end of the book we learn that Rebecca’s interest in Eileen was not necessarily of someone seeking friendship, or at least if it had been in the beginning, there were other more sinister reasons afoot come the end. To know them is to be at one with the older Eileen, a wiser, more comfortable being whom now looks back at her younger self with a regretful woe for the life that she left behind, but an understanding that her freedom from that life was spurred on by the events of her last few days in X-ville.

Eileen is a wonderfully dark and twisted novel from an emerging writer who chooses to add the grime and dirt of everyday life and dare us to empathize with the characters lost in its spiraling emptiness. Hope is a wonderful thing, yet Moshfegh challenges us to peer into the darkness where there is no hope of light, giving us a sense of the desperation some must feel, before they are able to break free from the gravity of their own lives.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh is a highly recommended Man Booker shortlisted novel available from Vintage Books.

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