Eileen, Otessa Moshfegh – Book Review

I received Eileen in exchange for an honest review

What an odd, dark little story Eileen is. It’s a book with an unforgettable female lead. It’s a book which was at times unpleasant to read, and yet I couldn’t quite bring myself to look away. It’s a book that employed excellent, clever writing, but I’d struggle to recommend it to anyone. In that respect, it’s pretty unique, and I can see why it has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.

EileenThe author envelops us in the world of Eileen, a character you’re likely to both despise and sympathise with. It’s as if she’s bottled the very essence of a pathetic, lonely existence and presented it here in this book. It’s not exactly enjoyable, but I was desperate to find out where it was all going to lead, and unsure what Eileen could be capable of.

I deplored silence. I deplored stillness. I hated almost everything. I was very unhappy and angry all the time. I tried to control myself, and that only made me more awkward, unhappier, and angrier. I was like Joan of Arc, or Hamlet, but born into the wrong life—the life of a nobody, a waif, invisible. There’s no better way to say it: I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.

The story of Eileen seems to be categorised as a literary psychological thriller, but I wouldn’t go into it looking for an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. This story is first and foremost a character study, and the ‘thriller’ aspect doesn’t really take off the final quarter of the story. It’s all about Eileen, a young woman who lives a sad life, working in boys’ correctional facility and caring for her alcoholic father, and hates pretty much everything about it, starting with herself. She’s fascinated with her figure and bodily functions – embodying all female hang-ups ever a hundredfold. There are entire pages dedicated to her menstruation and bowel movements – not necessarily pleasant reading, but it serves to illustrate her obsessive nature.

Eileen has never really had any real friends – she doesn’t really know how to. So when she meets Rebecca at work, new to the facility and a beautiful, vivacious woman who appears to be completely comfortable in her own skin – everything Eileen is not – Eileen is hooked. When the two begin to form a fragile friendship, she can hardly believe her luck.

The story is told by Eileen in present day – an older, more well-rounded woman who looks back at her younger, more reserved self with distant disdain. With the benefit of hindsight and experience, the older Eileen can see how easily Rebecca was able to bend her to her will, leading her into an irreversible situation which sees Eileen changing her life forever. And yet the trick is that I was never sure to what extent Eileen was a victim of the manipulative Rebecca and how much Rebecca just served to bring out a darker side of Eileen which was always present.

This debut novel is a clever, dark little character study with crime and obsession at its heart. Although the plot barely kicks off until the last quarter, I was somehow hooked throughout and its short length meant I could speed through it in just a couple of days. It’s not for everyone – those who don’t enjoy reading about an unlikeable protagonist may as well skip this one – but those who are open to reading something a little different, those who enjoy an unusual insight into the human psyche, might want to give this a try.

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