Eileen Dunlop, 24, is perversely and gloriously unlikeable. It’s 1964 and Eileen lives in an unnamed New England town with her alcoholic ex-cop father in the squalid, rambling family home. The mother is long dead and the older sister has flown the coup. He survives on gin, she on handfuls of peanuts, the occasional shower and weekly handfuls of laxatives to help purge her body.
Eileen is undoubtedly trapped – the demands from her father and the monotony of her job as a secretary at the local boys’ juvenile prison offer little cheer and even less joy. Yet she does very little to help herself other than daydream about her escape. I couldn’t be bothered to deal with fixing things. I preferred to wallow in the problem, dream of better days.
As a psychological drama, Eileen is masterful. The unreliable narrator unravels in front of us – a repressed, body-dysmorphic, depressed, naïve young woman who deludes herself into believing that, publically, she is in control. Yet, hiding herself in her mother’s matronly clothing several sizes too big (useful for shoplifting), her own alcoholic binges and erotic fantasies centred primarily round Randy, a prison guard, point to an erratic self evaluation and misinformed sense of self.
The arrival of the charismatic Rebecca Saint John to work at the prison shifts Eileen’s focus. Beautiful, stylish, confident, Rebecca is everything Eileen is not. She is the fillip Eileen needs to break free from her own self-loathing and undermining relationship with her father.
New lipstick and underwear (stolen of course), different clothes from her mother’s wardrobe and an attempt to be more social (within limits) all make their appearance (much to the dismissive amusement of her father). And it achieves the result Eileen wants – a drink with Rebecca after work, a Christmas Eve social. Yet, in these last few pages of the novel, she finds herself in a totally unexpected situation.
Eileen is a character completely out of place. Other than a few months in Boston at college (pulled out to care for her dying mother), she has lived her life in the small coastal New England town. She shows no interest in popular culture, preferring obscure library books, a subscription to National Geographic and the wardrobe of her dead mother. She has stepped out of a Patricia Highsmith novel. (Should the novel find its way to film, Rooney Mara is the perfect fit).
But the problem with Eileen is that, as a narrative, it’s a little drab and slow moving – something of a tortoise. Eileen is a great character study, a psychological drama centred round the main character. It is not a psychological thriller as suggested by the front cover – nothing of any import happens until the last few pages.
In her debut novel, Ottessa Moshfegh was (somewhat surprisingly) shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. She lost out to the first American winner of the award, Paul Beatty and The Sellout.