Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh
Eileen is a damaged child, trapped in a bad place. Well, technically, she’s not a child: she’s twenty four. But she’s undernourished, and stunted physically and mentally, trapped in a loveless home with an alcoholic, needy father. Who is abusive, in an emotionally battering sense. Oh, and it’s Christmas.
The setting is a snowy New England town, only identified as X-ville. We are listening to the voice of Eileen as an old woman, looking back at the few weeks of her life in 1964 when she knew Rebecca Saint John. Rebecca turns up at the boys’ prison at which Eileen works as a secretary, brought in to plan an education programme for the inmates. A glamorous and beautiful oddity in the griminess of X-ville, she befriends Eileen, unleashing her hopes for life, happiness, independence. But it’s never going to be that easy, is it?
A telephone hung by the kitchen doorway, through which I could see one chair at a small enamel table, a sink full of dirty dishes, an opened packet of sliced bread fanned across the yellowed linoleum counter. A clock whirred high on the wall over a calendar opened to May 1962, a photo of a marine saluting, a chiseled chin.
This isn’t a cheerful read, although it’s beautifully written, the tension drawn out to an almost unbearable pitch. I’ve read an interview in which Eileen is described as “fast-paced and creepy.” Fast-paced it is not. Four-fifths is the lengthy set up, an introduction wallowing in the filth of Eileen’s life. She exerts a puny level of control over her life by not washing, not cleaning, not eating. She takes laxatives and gets drunk with her hideous ex-police officer father. (There’s a lot of vomit.)
I didn’t love it. I didn’t even like it that much, but I kept on reading, all the time feeling the need to go and wash. Moshfegh has an eerie talent for pinning down the feel of a moment. I’m still peeling my feet up from sticky floors, waiting for the monster to jump out of the closet. Like the best monsters, it’s not one you’ll have been expecting.