Eileen is a 2015 novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, the author’s first full-length book of fiction, which won her the PEN/Hemingway Foundation award in 2016. Set during a bitter winter in 1964, the story follows Eileen Dunlop, a disturbed 24-year-old woman living in a nowhere town in Massachusetts. Between working as a secretary in a youth prison and caring for her callous, alcoholic father at home, Eileen lives a life of misery and self-loathing, fantasizing about leaving her hometown forever. The story follows her life over the course of several days, leading up to the fateful Christmas Eve when her life changes forever.
While at this point I’m no stranger to how Moshfegh’s fiction plumbs the depths of human suffering, I was surprised with just how much of a slow burn this novel was. While I could recall some details of the summary from when I first purchased my digital copy, as well as people tacking “mystery” and “thriller” to it on Goodreads, I had only a vague notion of what was in store for me. With all said and done, I can now characterize the novel as a meticulous dissection of the lead character and her life, performed in retrospect by the narrator herself.
With such hyper-focus on Eileen as a character, a great bulk of the novel doesn’t really have a plot. Eileen the narrator, in the present an old woman, reflects on the fateful days leading up to Christmas Eve 1964. We learn of her banal routines at the prison, her nonexistent relationship with the other ladies in the office, her fixation on a certain guard whom she stalks, as well as her dreary, broken home life in a rundown house with her father, pacifying him with gin while receiving all of his verbal abuse and contempt. Early on a lot of it reads as a day in the life of Eileen.
Enveloping these drab routines was a deeply intimate look into how she feels about herself, her environment, everyone around her, and the often absurd/naïve fantasies she has. What struck me most was just how raw her misery felt. Nothing came across as melodramatic or sensationalized. I’ve been fortunate enough not to be a situation such as hers, but the reader is put so much in her head that it was easy to feel it vicariously. It genuinely got under my skin, and even though the story was told retrospectively, it was hard not to feel present with her in her bleak existence.
Having Eileen herself reflect on who she was at that time was really effective, helping to strip away the facades her younger self upheld the way that only hindsight can, such as the perversions that lurked behind her performed prudishness or the way she malnourished herself due to body image issues. What was most interesting about her role as narrator, however, was the way she engaged with the reader more directly.
In part, it was the way she guides the reader’s expectations, such as clarifying early on that the guard whom she regularly stalked had no major role to play in the story. What was best about it though was how she built suspense. What was continually alluded to is the fact that the story ends with Eileen’s disappearance, which was typically the way she phrased it; disappearance rather than departure. Sprinkled throughout, to further tantalize, are details about her life post-disappearance: lovers she’s had since or what she’s heard about people she knew before leaving—contextual clues as to the life she’d led after the end of the novel. While the story of her bleak life was captivating in its own way, this ever-growing suspense was what compelled me most. Escape from her personal prison was clearly what was best for her, but why a disappearance?
Though I said much of the novel doesn’t really have a plot, per se, there is a definite shift in the story when an unlikely new friend arrives at the prison: a beautiful young woman named Rebecca Saint John, the new director of education at the prison. Though it takes a while to see how, it is their burgeoning friendship that leads Eileen down the path to her eventual disappearance, the climactic chapter having some of the best suspense writing I’ve read. It took Eileen through some of the darkest elements of the book, which is saying something, but through the other side was her deliverance.
Eileen is an excellent novel, a slow burn that builds up its suspense really well, though your mileage may vary with how in-the-weeds the story is with exploring Eileen’s unfortunate life. Despite how bleak it sounds, there’s always a great deal of humanity to Moshfegh’s writing that I heartily appreciate, even if it’s on the darker side. It always feels honest to me.
My only real gripes, though minor, are the early phases of the book feeling a little too drawn out and the ending feeling like it wrapped up a little to quickly. Nevertheless, the meticulous dissection of Eileen’s character was crucial to understanding how things unfolded the way that they did and the choices she made. I also loved how seemingly arbitrary details became more important to how things turned out in the end. Definitely a novel worth checking out.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5
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