Set in 1964, Eileen tells her story from the present day, her outlook on life as a septuagenarian informing her view of herself as a twenty four year old growing up in small town Massachusetts. She lives with her father, a retired cop who spends his days in an alcoholic haze. Her mother is dead and she is not close to her sister though she lives not far away. Eileen works as a secretary in a boys’ prison. She despises pretty much everyone around her apart from Randy, one of the prison guards, who she has a crush on and occasionally stalks. To say that she is disturbed is to put it mildly. She lives in filth, her father sleeping in a broken recliner seat in their foul kitchen (Moshfegh describes this in such a way that I was glad not to be eating when I read this), Eileen on a camp bed in the attic. She barely eats, occasionally binges, and has an addiction to laxatives to make herself feel better. She saves her money and dreams one day of escaping to New York, even making a test run in her barely functioning car, only to almost asphyxiate when the emissions from the faulty exhaust build up.
Everything changes when the glamorous Rebecca Saint John arrives in town. A Harvard graduate, newly employed as the prison’s first ever director of education, she befriends Eileen and becomes her new obsession, Randy the guard instantly relegated. Eileen tells us beforehand that Rebecca is going to be the real star of the story, building the suspense with little hints so that when Rebecca finally arrived on page 92, I was desperate to find out who she was, what was going to happen. You know it’s something big, something that will change Eileen’s life forever.
Eileen is not a likeable character. Even the future version of Eileen thinks her former self odd. She is part unreliable narrator but is also more honest than any of these other so-called ‘unlikeable women’ who are so popular right now. The book is part confessional, an older woman unburdening herself on the page. She is a difficult character but more real for it. The pacing of the novel is brilliant. You are waiting for the inevitable climax to take place but when I did not guess at what was ahead, though the clues were there. It managed to be both extreme and yet still sat within the realms of plausibility. This is not always a comfortable book to read but if you are a fan of noir, then Eileen is certainly as dark and cold as a Massachusetts winter.
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