18 October 2016

Book Review: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Ahead of the announcement of the winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize next week, I'm posting reviews of two of the books that I've enjoyed from the longlist. First up is Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen, which was published earlier this year by Jonathan Cape/Penguin Random House. I received a review copy of the novel, which is on the Booker shortlist, via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

Eileen, the young heroine of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel of the same name, is trapped. Trapped in her dead-end job at a youth prison; trapped in her mundane, small-town life; and trapped caring for her curmudgeonly, alcoholic father. “I was like Joan of Arc, or Hamlet, but born into the wrong life — the life of a nobody, a waif, invisible,” she says. It is 1964 and in fact, Eileen is more Peggy Olsen than Joan of Arc. Eileen takes place during a single wintry week in which Eileen’s life changes irrevocably and she finally gets the opportunity to escape her Massachusetts hometown for good and seek the life she feels she has always deserved. “In a week, I would run away from home and never go back,” she announces early on in the novel.

The catalyst for this dramatic turn of events is the arrival at the prison of Rebecca Saint John, the glamorous and charismatic new education director, who comes with a degree from Harvard (not Radcliffe) and a feistiness that appeals instantly to Eileen. Before she meet Rebecca, Eileen has little to look forward to in life. Her father, a bitter ex-cop, berates her constantly and compares her to her older sister Joanie (“not a hanger-on like you, Eileen”). She pines for a prison guard named Randy, who she thinks is probably out of her league, and she shows some signs of disordered eating. But after they bond over combination locks of all things, Eileen and Rebecca become fast friends. Finally, Eileen thinks, someone sees her for whom she really is — and whom she has the potential to be.

As events come to a head, Moshfegh explores themes of ambition and identity, self-loathing and reinvention. Eileen is a complex character. At first she seems sympathetic: she has had a hard life, a challenging relationship with her father, and few close friends or family members. As the novel progressed, however, I had to wonder how reliable a narrator Eileen really is. After all, it soon becomes clear that a major and unforeseen event takes place later in the novel and Eileen’s narrative could be seen as her effort to justify or explain the actions she has taken — to whom, it is unclear; we only know that the 70-something Eileen is looking back on the events of that week. And many of Eileen’s remarks — the ‘Joan of Arc’ comment included — make it clear that she believes she is destined for a better life than the one into which she was born. 

Whether this should be seen as ambition and determination or ruthlessness is never really resolved, but despite my initial sympathies for her, by the end of the novel, I didn’t like her much and nor did I fully trust her spin on the events of December 1964. “We weren’t terrible people, no worse than any of you,” she argues, her previous disdain for the ordinary life she sought to leave behind thrust aside.

Nonetheless, Moshfegh’s novel is an excellent, meticulously detailed character study — and a portrait of small-town New England during a very particular period of US history.

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