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ottessa-moshfegh-eileen

This post is a little early as I am off to Sydney for the weekend, so Saturday’s post is actually going up early hours of Friday morning. Please excuse bad writing and any typos as it’s late, I’m rushing and I have to get to bed!

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (also listed, along with Hot Milk on the Booker shortlist) is an extraordinary novel, entirely captivating and with just a small wobble towards the end. Here is the back cover blurb:

The Christmas season offers little cheer for Eileen Dunlop. Trapped between caring for her alcoholic father and her job as a secretary at the boys’ prison, she tempers her dreary days with dreams of escaping to the big city. In the meantime, her nights and weekends are filled with shoplifting and cleaning up her increasingly deranged father’s messes.

When the beautiful, charismatic Rebecca Saint John arrives on the scene, Eileen is enchanted. But soon Eileen’s affection for Rebecca will pull her into a crime that far surpasses even her own wild imagination.

OK, the blurb is a little cliched? How about the front cover quotations?

‘A taut psychological thriller, rippled with comedy as black as a raven’s wing’- The Times

‘Original, courageous, masterful’- Guardian

‘Perverse, squalid and sinister, this expertly paced novel [sic]… delivers a thumping finish to match the build-up: a single line near the end has the effect of a thunderbolt, leaving us dumbstruck by her sly, almost wicked storytelling genius’ – Daily Telegraph

‘If Jim Thompson had married Patricia Highsmith – imagine that household – they might have conspired together to dream up something like Eileen. It’s blacker than black and cold as an icicle. It’s also brilliantly realised and horribly funny’ – John Banville.

I don’t know who Jim Thompson is but I’ve read Highsmith and reckon she could have pulled such a book as Eileen out on her own actually, not needing a male sperm donor’s help. Also, the mention of the icicle in Banville’s quotation is poignant, as icicles play a central role in a way, and if they ever have an award for ‘Best Icicle in Novel’ I guess it would be down to Eileen and The Lovely Bones on the shortlist. I don’t know of any other contenders.

And the mention of the single line near the end in the DT quotation: something like that is guaranteed to keep this reader reading… right to the end to see what I think about that.

Here is the opening:

1964

I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I looked like nothing special. It’s easy for me to imagine this girl, a strange, young and mousy version of me, carrying an anonymous leather purse or eating from a small package of peanuts, rolling each one between her gloved fingers, sucking in her cheeks, staring anxiously out the window. The sunlight in the morning illuminated the thin down on my face, which I tried to cover with pressed powder, a shade too pink for my wan complexion. I was thin, my figure was jagged, my movements pointy and hesitant, my posture stiff. The terrain of my face was heavy with soft, rumbling acne scars blurring whatever delight or madness lay beneath that cold and deadly New England exterior. If I’d worn glasses I could have passed for smart, but I was too impatient to be truly smart. You’d have expected me to enjoy the stillness of closed rooms, take comfort in dull silence, my gaze moving slowly across paper, walls, heavy curtains, thoughts never shifting from what my eyes identified – books, desk, tree, person. But I deplored silence. I deplored stillness. I hated almost everything. I was very unhappy and angry all the time. I tried to control myself, and that only made me more awkward, unhappier, and angrier. I was like Joan of Arc, or Hamlet, but born into the wrong life – the life of a nobody, a waif, invisible. There’s no better way to say it: I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.

This is from p95, where Eileen is describing Rebecca:

Rebecca Saint John’s face that day had no makeup on it that I could detect, and yet she looked impeccable, fresh faced, a natural beauty. Her hair was long and thick, the colour of brass, coarse and, I noted gratefully, in need of a hardy brushing. Her skin was sort of golden coloured, and her face was round and full with strong cheekbones, a small rosebud mouth, thin eyebrows and unusually blond eyelashes. Her eyes were an odd shade of blue. There was something manufactured about that colour. It was a shade of blue like a swimming pool in an ad for a tropical getaway. It was the colour of mouthwash, toothpaste, toilet cleaner. My own eyes, I thought, were like shallow lake water, green, murky, full of slime and sand. Needless to say, I felt completely insulted and horrible about myself in the presence of this beautiful woman. 

Half of this section is concerned with cliches, deliberate I think to greater underline the shift to the unusual language the narrator uses to describe her own face.

And two pages later:

What is that old saying? A friend is someone who helps you hide the body – that was the gist of this new rapport. I sensed it immediately. My life was going to change. In this strange creature I’d met my match, my kindred spirit, my ally. Already I wanted to extend my hand, slashed and ready to be shaken in a pact of blood, that was how impressionable and lonely I was. I kept my hands in my pockets, however. This marked the beginning of the dark bond which now paves the way for the rest of my story.

If the first sentence isn’t a Chekhovian gun then what is?

Page 203, I liked this passage:

I will say this about houses. Those perfect, neat colonials I’d passed earlier tat evening… are the death masks of normal people. Nobody is really so orderly, so perfect. To have a house like that says more about what’s wrong with you than any decrepit dump. Those people with perfect houses are simply obsessed with death.

The single shocking sentence when it comes is shocking and you read on, of course, but by then you are almost finished anyway. My small disappointment was due to expecting some events of Shakespearian magnitude (there had been hints dropped earlier) and as a reader, I would have loved to see something more cataclysmic.

In other news, I’ve decided my final Indian read for the year will be A Suitable Boy. Wish me luck, you know I need it.

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