A disturbing psychological thriller

Here is my third review from the Man Booker Prize 2016 shortlist. The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, was announced as the winner last Tuesday, which means I did not predict correctly (in my blog on Monday I hoped it would be Deborah Levy, but thought it would probably be won by Madeleine Thien). My only excuse is that I had not finished reading all six books on the shortlist by the time of the announcement!

As promised, here is my review of Eileen, by American writer Ottessa Moshfegh, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Have a read and see what you think, and if you have read it I’d love to know what you thought.


This is a novel about disorder; set in a seemingly sedate generic town in New England in the 1960s (for the purposes of the novel it’s called X-Ville), we are presented at the outset with a horrifying picture of chaos, in Eileen’s family home, in her messed-up mind, in her lifestyle and in her work. Eileen is a young woman and an administrator in a penal institution for young boys. Eileen, like many of the young males incarcerated at the prison, one imagines, is damaged, but, unlike those boys, the damage has not yet manifested itself in actions that have got her into trouble. Not yet. And that is the suspense of the novel – will the neglect to which she has been subjected burst out at some point?

Eileen has led a troubled life: neglected as a child by an alcoholic mother (now dead after what seems to have been a protracted illness), possibly abused by her father (we are not certain), with whom she now lives alone and who is also an alcoholic. Her father is mentally ill but his public misdemeanours are tolerated by the local police because he himself in an ex-cop. Instead, Eileen is more or less blamed for failing to keep him under control. The house they live in is disgusting – foetid, cluttered and in a state of disrepair. The effect is so visceral that just reading about it made me want to wash my hands!

Narrated by Eileen, the first few chapters set the scene brilliantly and we get a powerful sense of her social and emotional isolation, her inability to relate to others and how this manifests itself in repressed sexual fantasies alongside disgust with her own physicality; Eileen is obsessed with one of the prison guards (the aptly named Randy). What was interesting to me about these opening chapters was that I built a picture in my mind of a kind of dystopian nightmare, both in the domestic setting and the town at large, but gradually I began to realise how much of this was rooted in Eileen’s distorted perception. For example, she creates an image of herself as an ugly, unseemly and repellent individual, but in fact outsiders see her more as shy, slight, naïve. On the other hand, Eileen’s perception is more real than distorted, because she is peeling away the thin veneer of respectability that covers over the bleakness. With regard to her self-portrayal, Eileen’s self-esteem is so low and her anger so deeply internalised that the words from her own mouth make her appear like something from a horror story. I can’t recall when I last met a character in literature so full of self-loathing and self-disgust. She challenges the reader to hate her more than she hates herself, but when the hints start to come through of her bulimia, and abuse and neglect in her childhood, I found I began to question how much I could trust her as a narrator.

And then we meet the other main character Rebecca Saint John – what lies beneath her confident and perfectly-groomed exterior, the very antithesis of Eileen? Rebecca is an educator who comes to the prison to work with the boys. She takes an immediate interest in Eileen – this was when I first began to distrust Eileen, because, presumably, Rebecca would not have tried to make friends with Eileen were she as unpleasant as she has led us to believe. Eileen becomes obsessed with Rebecca as their acquaintance grows, and the tension builds as the reader wonders expectantly how this is going to end…and that is as much as I want to say!

It’s a gripping novel, a psychological thriller in the finest tradition of that genre – even the fact that it’s set in the 1960s gives it a slightly Hitchcockian feel. It’s brilliantly written and very vivid.

I recommend this book highly. It’s quite short and fast-paced and you will read it very quickly.


Author: Julia's books

Reader. Writer. Mother. Partner. Friend. Friendly.

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