Review: Eileen

“When poor people hear a loud noise, they whip their heads around. Wealthy people finish their sentences, then just glance back,” — Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
Published by Penguin Press, 2015
Genre: Fiction, psychological thriller
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: Although it was an engaging book, I’m not sure I will be able to pick this one up again.

Reviewed by Indiana
Spoilers Ahead

Eileen is a dark read. Perhaps darker than We’ve Always Lived in the Castle, a classic by Shirley Jackson, and it’s clear that’s exactly what Moshfegh was going for.

Set in an icy New England town, between the boy’s jail and Eileen’s depressingly filthy home, the novel follows a rather odd protagonist through her trials and tribulations.

Eileen works at the jail as an assistant of some sort, but most days she pines after a correctional officer who never gives her the time of day. She has no friends to speak of and the only thing she has to go home to is a drunk father who can no longer take care of himself.

Needless to say, there’s not a lot of cheer to be found.

But Eileen gets by and even revels in the filth around here, stealing beautiful things when she can or just destroying beautiful things she can’t buy.

Things change when the prison hires a new psychologist. When Rebecca Saint John comes to work there, she brings a new spirit of adventure and reawakens some sense of life in Eileen. The two become fast friends and Eileen finally feels like things are coming together for her.

Rebecca becomes very involved in this one inmates case, a boy who won’t speak to anyone and seems to be innocent in every way. On the surface, Eileen doesn’t question Rebecca’s dedication to the boy’s case until Christmas Eve.

Rebecca has soon tied Eileen into a kidnapping scheme and asks her to take things a step further and into murder.

I’ve read Shirley Jackson and similar authors so I thought I was prepared for how strange Eileen was going to be.

I wasn’t prepared.

Eileen is such a gross and sad character, sometimes I couldn’t help but laugh at some of her thoughts. She hates showering, things like feces turn her on, she refuses to clean the house, etc. But on the other hand, it’s clear she’s got some serious issues. She hardly ever eats, her father constantly makes fun of her (and would especially make fun of her body as she reached adolescence, hence the eating disorder), and she has no one else in her life. So it’s hard not to feel some sort of sympathy for her, even if she loves thinking about and talking about the grossest possible scenarios.

Despite the book’s overall sense of doom, there was always a tiny pin prick of light. The narrator is an older Eileen, one who has escaped all that and frequently mentions how awful things were then and how happy she is presently. Although the book had an “open ending,” at least part of the “what happened?” question is answered throughout the book.

Overall, I thought it was a strong second book for Moshfegh and obviously others agreed, as it was nominated for the Booker Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, among other things.

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