‘I wanted someone to tell me my future was bright. I can imagine myself saying at the time that life itself was like a book borrowed from the library – something that did not belong to me and was due to expire. How silly’.
I have just finished the extraordinary ride that is Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. It is difficult to write about without giving anything away, but suffice to say it thoroughly deserves its place on the Booker Prize shortlist.
Eileen lives with her father. Miserable? Hesitant? Angry? Eileen is all of these things: she is so deep in the murky darkness of her life with her alcoholic father, and her work at a boys’ prison, that she doesn’t know herself at all. She sits at her desk, practicing her ‘death mask’ and dreams of walking away and starting a new life. She hasn’t just dreamed about it, she has worked out all the details: piling on all the clothes she will need, and leading the search astray by abandoning her car before catching a train into her future. Eileen holds nothing back: she tells us her feelings about her everday life, from the mundane to the fantastic. When I read the following description of how Eileen feels as she sits at her desk, I knew I was in the hands of a master:
‘The second hand on the clock shook and bolted forward like someone at first terrified with anxiety, then, bolstered by desperation, jumping off a cliff only to get stuck in midair’.
In the introduction to the sublime Rabbit novels, John Updike says,
‘Rather than arrive at a verdict and a directive, I sought to present sides of an unresolved tension intrinsic to being human. Readers who expect novelists to reward and punish and satirize their characters from a superior standpoint will be disappointed’.
I was reminded of this remark when reading Eileen. I didn’t particularly like or understand her, and yet I did feel an empathy towards her in her loneliness and insecurity, and an appalled fascination with her feelings towards her work and her colleagues. She has no friend or family member to talk to, or share things with, and so when a sophisticated young woman called Rebecca arrives at the prison and shows an interest in her, we know Eileen’s life is about to change. At times I felt like I did whilst watching the Office, thrilled and horrified at the same time, hands over my face, but peeping out, desperate to find out what happens next. Eileen is like no book I have ever read: visceral and darkly funny, I find myself thinking about Eileen, and wondering what happened to her after I turned the last page.
Eileen is published in paperback by Vintage. If you liked this, you might like to try the work of Zoe Heller, whose novel The Believers features a character that one is fascinated and appalled by in equal measure.
by Julia Harrison