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.

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