I chose this book in my quest I undertake each year to read through some of the Man Booker nominated titles.
‘Eileen’ was one I’d seen recommended on another blog and on Twitter. After reading ‘A Little Life’, I’ve grown to understand I like dark books – this one, I finished quite quickly and very much enjoyed.
Eileen is a nightmarish and disturbing debut in which the eponymous character recalls a week in the life of her younger self which was the catalyst for an altered existence.
At the age of 24, Eileen is living a disgust-inducing life in a strange, couple-like relationship with her alcoholic ex-cop father in blue-collar suburb she calls ‘X-ville’. She escapes each day to work at a correction centre for young boys, where she devises questionnaires for visiting parents, drinks vermouth from her locker and is resented by fellow staff members.
So far, so miserable existence – but Eileen’s true inner crazy is her feelings towards her body, and those of other people. This is a woman who describes herself as “a shoplifter, a pervert, you might say, and a liar, of course.”
She feels revulsion when looking in the mirror, refuses to eat despite her protruding bones on a 100-pound frame, rarely washes and seemingly takes pleasure when people touch her unwashed hands and touches her intimate areas before sniffing her fingers.
A voyeur, she feasts on the sight of the boys at the correctional facility and casually describes how she stalks a male guard after hours. She sleeps in an attic and urinates in a mason jar, is addicted to laxatives and graphically describes her feeling after evacuating her bowels, when she feels light as air and physically spent.
Whether shoplifting, hiding her father’s shoes in the boot of her car or drinking to excess, Eileen is usually and understandably angry and unhappy. She hides these feelings with her ‘death mask’ until her existence is shaken by the appearance of Rebecca, a Harvard-educated new employee at work.
Rebecca is glamorous, clean and composed, everything Eileen feels she is not. Her appearance prompts Eileen to excessive behaviour – she goes for a drink at a bar, takes a shower, dances to a jukebox.
All this precedes an event that will lead Eileen to leave X-ville and later tell this story at a remove of decades, when she has long since left this squalid life behind for a new existence in New York.
Moshfegh creates a world which is creepy and unsettling as well as strangely satisfying, where absolute absorption in the unlikeable protagonist inspires both disgust and sympathy in the reader.
Narrative and imagery are captivating in this novel where flavourful prose forms the lead-up to what is a sinister and dark conclusion for a deeply flawed protagonist.
Eileen is published by Penguin Books and is longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.