Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh

eileenEileen looks back fifty years to her life in 1964 in New England, caring for her alcoholic father and working in a prison for boys. Dowdy, contrary and appealingly unlikeable, Eileen’s life is transformed when she meets the beautiful and mysterious Rebecca. With the cool gaze of hindsight, she tells of how they conspire in an event which leads her to leave her home forever.

The author perfectly evokes the world of Eileen, the period and the small town where she lives. She captures the self-hatred of a woman growing up unloved in a house dominated by addiction and cruelty, how she harms herself, how she cussedly survives. She illuminates the way the town and the institutions of family, church and state are complicit in the mistreatment of the vulnerable. The prose has all the poise and craft of an accomplished short story writer. And that may be the problem.

For me the pace isn’t quite right for a novel. Over a third of the book is taken up describing the three days before Eileen’s life changes. We are given almost a minute-by-minute account, forcing our faces into the stink and the tedium of her life, over and over, while nothing happens. Maybe the author thinks, we should know that lives like this exist, that we should suffer like Eileen.

Rebecca appears in Eileen’s life promising a different world, one she can barely imagine. From here things move a little too fast. While Eileen’s infatuation with Rebecca is convincing, Rebecca, for me, isn’t. She feels like a character who exists purely to move the plot. It’s fine that her past and her future remain mysterious to Eileen and to the reader, but I struggled to believe that she even had a past and a future.

So, we know (we really do) what Eileen’s life before Rebecca was like and Eileen-as-narrator tells us something of the years after she gets away. But this means all we are waiting for is to find out what happens between Eileen and Rebecca to lead her to make her escape. This is heavily foreshadowed with hints and coy promises of drama to come.

Foreshadowing can be an effective technique. It can add poignancy, a sense of inevitability, giving weight to apparently insignificant events. But if you’re going to use it, you have to deliver. And for me, when the turning point does come, it’s not moving or convincing or shocking enough.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley.

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