Review: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

eileenFor some reason, I have decided to try to read all six books on the Man Booker shortlist before the winner is announced in October. I’ve read half of 2015’s list and not been inspired by any of them, so I’m hoping for better things from the 2016 shortlist. We’ll see whether this is very naive…

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh was my first foray into the shortlist, and it’s quite a strange book. The eponymous character recounts the story of her life as a 24 year old, living with her drunk and deeply unpleasant father and working in a boys’ prison. The young Eileen is a hugely miserable person, filled with loathing for herself and everyone else; this means it’s undoubtedly a bleak read, and one in which not very much happens. It’s a short book (about 230 pages), of which at least three quarters consists of not very much; Eileen talks about hating her looks, hating her father, hating her job and basically hating everyone, and then a thing kind-of half happens, and then it’s finished.

Although this sounds really depressing, oddly, this wasn’t the effect Eileen had on me. There are enough hints at something more dramatic to come to keep the reader engaged, and the abject nature of Eileen’s day-to-day existence is weirdly compelling. I didn’t think the “big reveal” at the end necessarily merited the build-up, but it was still enough of a pay-off to make this a reasonably satisfying read. Moshfegh leaves plenty for the reader to dwell on, with subtle hints at aspects of Eileen’s family life and upbringing which the character herself seems unwilling to think about. If the book had been any longer, I think all the misery would have been too much, but the short length means Eileen doesn’t outstay her welcome.

Strangely, Eileen reminded me a book which was longlisted for the Booker but didn’t make the shortlist: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. Both books have a subtly troubled protagonist, failing to fully confront their past with an unloving parent, and both show a high degree of isolation. Lucy Barton is a far more sympathetic character, principally because of Strout’s delicate and sensitive writing, while Moshfegh is unflinching in her representation of Eileen as an unpleasant, bitter and unattractive character. I feel like there’s a thesis in there somewhere.

Eileen is an interesting choice as a shortlisted novel. It’s very narrow in its scope, with unchallenging prose, which makes it the polar opposite of last year’s winner, Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, which I have thus far been unable to actually get through. Eileen is challenging in terms of its harsh characterisation and glacial pace, but is nonetheless worth reading. Up next on my Booker challenge: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thein.

Top Ten Tuesday: Autumn TBR

This week’s TTT, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is Autumn TBR lists. There are a couple of really obvious books which I assume everyone will have on their lists this week (namely Crooked Kingdom and Gemina), both of which I am desperate to read but as I have already mentioned these about a billion times, I’m focusing on some other titles this week.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thein
I’ve set myself a goal of reading the Man Booker shortlist before the winner is announced in October. This is the one I’m most looking forward to;  I don’t know very much about Chinese history and I think this book will be really interesting.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Another Booker list title; this is, I think, largely about race and is described as a very funny satire, so I’m very intrigued to read it.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
I’ve seen this book discussed a lot in book blogs and I was very excited to secure an e-ARC. It’s about two sisters, one of whom is sold into slavery while the other marries a slave trader. It’s set in Africa and the US; I’m keen to read more novels set in Africa so this one is eagerly anticipated.

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake
I’ve been looking forward to reading this for a while; it’s a YA fantasy about a kingdom where triplets are born to fight against each other for the crown (or something). It sounds cool.

Girl Up by Laura Bates
Laura Bates is my new idol and I’m going to see her speak about this book at a literature festival at the start of October. Her previous book, Everyday Sexism, was excellent.

Blood for Blood by Ryan Graudin
Another sequel I’m looking forward to reading is this one: the follow-up to Wolf by Wolf, a book I loved so much I am currently teaching it to one of my classes as well as bullying my husband into reading it. The ending of Wolf by Wolf has haunted me for months; I can’t wait to see what happens next.

The Graces by Laura Eve
This YA novel about witches has been getting a lot of attention on Twitter, which I’ve tried to avoid so I can make up my own mind. I’m looking forward to reading it as Halloween gets closer.

The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer
I’ve heard such good things about this and I’m a big fan of Amy Schumer.

Saga Volume 3 by Brian K. Vaughan
My copy of this arrived a few days ago. I’ve really enjoyed the space setting and epic storylines of the previous two in the series. I was hoping for slightly fewer graphic sex scenes in this one but the back cover makes me think that was unrealistic…

Faithful by Alice Hoffman
I’ve been a big fan of Hoffman for ages; in my days of trawling charity shops for cheap books (with uncracked spines, obviously) I used to pick up her novels all the time, but I don’t think I’ve ever read one when it was brand new. I’m saving this one for my holiday.



Review: Lydia by Natasha Farrant

lydiaI would generally describe myself as a bit weird about any attempt to add to or change one of my favourite books. I’d like to say it’s not because I’m precious or possessive, but that would be a lie. So you can take it as a very big compliment to Natasha Farrant’s Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice when I say that I lapped it up and thought it was hilarious.

The book is presented in the form of Lydia’s diaries, and begins around the same time as its source novel, with the arrival of Mr Bingley at Netherfield. There’s something really pleasant about being back at Longbourn, home of the Bennet family; a while ago, I went to the home of my childhood best friend’s parents for the first time in years, and it felt so welcoming and comforting, and that’s what reading this book reminded me of. Farrant’s use of all the Bennet sisters is entirely true to Austen’s original creations, but with Lydia’s occasionally snarky voice, we gain a new and intriguing perspective. Lydia is also completely hilarious; exactly as melodramatic as she is in Pride and Prejudice, she frequently talks about how much she’d like to murder everyone and is particularly scathing when describing the horrendous Mr Collins. Her relationships with her sisters are interestingly portrayed, especially Lizzy; there’s a degree of envy in the way Lydia regards her second-oldest sister, but the loving bond of the Bennet family is always evident. On the subject of which, it seems that Farrant picked up on something I’ve long believed about the Bennet parents; namely, that Mr Bennet is incredibly condescending and basically not a very good father, while Mrs Bennet is just desperately trying to do her best for her daughters.

There’s a feminist edge to Lydia which I really enjoyed; the forceful main character bullies Wickham into teaching her to ride a horse properly, as well as asking him to show her how to shoot, and more than once bemoans the fact that being born a girl in the Regency period has deprived her of the opportunities available to men. “I wish I were a man,” she says, “instead of a girl, obliged to sit around waiting for no-good suitors to decide if I am fancy enough, or to throw myself at idiot clergymen. If I were a man, I could do something.” It’s hard to argue with her logic, and I found myself cheering her on as she took matters into her own hands. Farrant’s spin on the relationship between Lydia and Wickham is interesting too; it’s not necessarily how I’ve always imagined that aspect of the story, but I enjoyed what she did with it, particularly when Lydia’s diary was covering events that were familiar from Pride and Prejudice.

I’d recommend Lydia to fans of Pride and Prejudice; Farrant manages to adopt a voice which sounds like Austen’s, without slavishly replicating her style, and the product is something which is undoubtedly very funny. I’m going to be teaching Pride and Prejudice next year, and I’ll be strongly suggesting my students pick up a copy of this too, although my concern will be that they’ll then wish they were studying Lydia’s story rather than Lizzy’s!

Review: I’ll Be Home for Christmas

i'll be home for christmasI’ll Be Home for Christmas is a collection of short stories by UK YA authors, raising awareness of homelessness, as well as cash for Crisis, the national homelessness charity; £1 from the sale of every copy will go to the charity. Aside from having laudable and excellent intentions, the anthology is a really good read, with not one dud amongst the stories collected.

The stories here can be broadly divided into two categories; the ones that cover ‘standard’ YA fare like relationships, parental divorce and friendships, and those which take a more imaginative approach to the theme of ‘home,’ like Marcus Sedgwick’s wonderful If Only In My Dreams, which is set in space, and Julie Mayhew’s fairy tale-esque story of a young girl with an over-protective father. Homelessness, obviously, is a key theme, with Benjamin Zephaniah, Kevin Brooks and Lisa Williamson approaching the topic from different, but equally affecting perspectives.

There are authors here whose work I already admire, like Williamson and Holly Bourne, and some with whose work I was previously unfamiliar, like Sita Brahmachari and Tom Becker. Others, like Zephaniah, are authors whose previous writing hasn’t really engaged me, but his poem, Home and Away, opens the collection and is superb, deftly using simple language to tell a powerful story. I really enjoyed Non Pratt’s story, Ghosts of Christmas Past, in which a teenage boy and his mum have to live with his nan after his parents’ divorce. It’s sweet and touching without being sickly, and it made me want to read more by Pratt.

The strongest contributions here, for me, were those by Sedgwick, Becker and Brahmachari; Claws, Becker’s spooky Christmas story about a cursed village had me intrigued and terrified, while Amir and George, Brahmachari’s tale of an orphaned refugee trying to take part in a public speaking contest, was perfectly pitched and had me wanting to give hugs to fictional characters. Melvin Burgess’ story, When Daddy Comes Home, predictably, was the strangest, told from the perspective of the deranged son of a disgraced Prime Minister; the fact that this was sandwiched between Christmas, Take Two, Katy Cannon’s story of a teen’s first Christmas with her new step-family and Julie Mayhew’s dreamlike story of ogres and towers, The Bluebird, really shows the strength and diversity of the collection. Each story here is distinct and unique, following the themes of style of the writer’s other work but clearly different from everything else in the book.

I read an eARC of I’ll Be Home for Christmas but I’ll definitely be buying a paperback when it comes out; even as I read, I was thinking of ways to use the stories at school and I know I’ll want to read them again. The collection has definitely given me some new authors to look up.