By Ottessa Moshfegh
The Christmas season offers little cheer for Eileen Dunlop, who is trapped between her role as her alcoholic father’s care taker, and her day job at the boys’ prison. When the beautiful Rebecca Saint John arrives at the prison as the new counselor, Eileen is enchanted and unable to resist what appears to be a miraculously budding friendship.Tweet
The story is about Eileen, a 24-year-old woman working in a young offenders’ prison in 1950s X-Ville, a suburb in the east coast of America. Her mother has passed away and she cares for her father, an alcoholic, retired police officer who is less than a model parent.
Eileen struggles with her self-image (she uses laxatives to control her weight and obsesses about her appearance), lusts after the teenage boys in the institution in which she works (there’s a particularly uncomfortable display of voyeurism with a boy in solitary confinement), and wonders what will become of her life.
In walks Rebecca, a young, glamorous woman who is hired to develop an educational programme for the prison. Eileen is intimidated and intrigued by Rebecca in equal measure, and they soon bond on a drunken night in a bar. The pair’s relationship is complicated when Rebecca discovers one of the prisoners was the victim of extreme sexual abuse, and takes the retribution for such horrors into her own hands.
We hear about the events above from Eileen 50 years after they occurred. She’s talking to us from the present about the past, and it can often be tricky (and wonderfully complex) to gauge how much hindsight influences the accuracy of her narration.
Clues about Eileen’s life after the events of the book are peppered throughout the narrative, giving glimpses of how her perspective has changed and where her life ended up when she left X-Ville (that’s not a spoiler, don’t worry). I would love to discover what happened to Eileen in 1960s and 1970s New York and think Moshfegh could offer a stunning exploration of that era by revisiting this character.
We read this as our September book club read and loved it. It was one of the longest and most diverse book discussions we’ve ever had!
We discussed the impact of childhood experiences on adults; whether Eileen the character and Eileen the book are feminist; narrative structure and the reliability of the author; and lots more in between. (I had three hot drinks, granary toast and a slice of cake to sustain me through our two-hour meeting.)
Provoking debate is the mark of good art. It should inspire you, make you think and stay with you after you’ve experience it. Eileen did all three and I think it’s a worthy contender for the Man Booker Prize.
Very chilling, perverted but excellent story telling. Two surprising twists near the end.