Be prepared to feel down and grudgy as you start to read Ottessa Moshfegh’s Man Booker Prize finalist Eileen. Although the sentences flow, the words create an uneasy sensation – at times, I wanted to put the book down to take a shower or vacuum the rug. At the end of the first chapter, Eileen warns the reader: “In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared.” This hopeful promise motivated my reading through the misery
As she begins to tell her story, Eileen looks back before her life-changing incident fifty years earlier the week before Christmas 1964. Each long chapter is titled with the day, starting with Friday and climaxing on Christmas Eve.
Having left college to return home to nurse her ailing mother, Eileen finds herself now stuck with her alcoholic father, a retired policeman. Her caring for him is minimal, no cooking or cleaning involved; she buys his liquor and ties his shoes. They live in squalor and a haze of perpetual drunkenness. In her job as a secretary at a correctional facility for boys, she fantasizes about one of the guards and imagines her father dying, leaving her free to move on.
By Monday, her examination of self is interrupted by a newcomer to the prison staff, Rebecca Saint John, a recent Harvard graduate. Beautiful and cheery, she is the antithesis of Eileen, yet they make a connection. Suddenly, the mood shifts. Eileen now has a friend – and her father’s gun.
“And I felt in a way that just by knowing her, I was graduating out of my misery. I was making some progress.”
Throughout the laborious build-up, as she reveals her inner demons and dreams of escape, Moshfegh has Eileen intermittently interrupting her own story, commenting as her older self. The narrative moves slowly until the climax, then takes on the frantic suspenseful pace of a murder mystery. On Christmas Eve, the story takes an eerie turn. Something bad and unexpected is about to happen, and it does.
Eileen confirms she has survived, now living a quiet life in New York City, but to tell how would spoil the story.
I understood author Jean Zimmerman’s assessment of the novel for NPR as “funny awful.” I might add other adjectives: weird, bizarre, dark – with strange shades of Capote and Hitchcock – but I couldn’t put it down until I finished it.