Books: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

review of novel eileen

This is a difficult novel to write about, because I’m not sure whether I love it or absolutely detest it. Either way, it makes for interesting conversation – or would do, if anyone I knew had read it! Have you read Eileen? It grabbed my attention because it was on the shortlist for the Man Booker prize (I often work my way through the shortlist when I’m stuck for reading material) but I’m just not sure what to make of it at all.

Here’s what the blurb says (taken from Amazon):

“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 as the new counsellor at the prison, Eileen is enchanted, unable to resist what appears to be a miraculously budding friendship. But soon, Eileen’s affection for Rebecca will pull her into a crime that far surpasses even her own wild imagination.”

It sounds thrilling and punchy, which is why I picked it out, but I just couldn’t get to grips with it at all – and, reading many online reviews, it seems I’m not alone. I think that the problem stems from the fact that the Eileen is totally unlikeable. Eileen is the sort of character for whom it’s difficult to dredge up any sympathy whatsoever – she seems to have drawn the short straw in life, stuck with a depressing, alcoholic father in a festering house filled with rotting food and decades of dirt, but still you can’t help blaming her for her hopeless situation. Because she’s crass – she’s so blunt that it makes you cringe. She overshares to the point that it’s almost physically uncomfortable, talking at length about her bowel movements and her hatred of her body and giving frank accounts of her drinking exploits, waking up with vomit frozen around her, the car crashed into a snowdrift.

All of this should be a little bit risqué, somewhat titillating – it should make for an interesting read, but the problem for me is that nothing dramatic really happens in terms of plot. You’re teased and teased from the start about a monumental occurrence, something drastic that’s going to happen that’ll be worth wading through Eileen’s faecal matter for, but then it never really presents itself. The foreshadowing of this event is constant – the reader is led from day to day through Eileen’s dirty, self-obsessed life, and the carrot of this exciting event is dangled at every turn, making you believe that it’s going to be something so outrageous, so toe-curlingly horrible that you mustn’t possibly miss it.

And then you almost do, because it’s not that toe-curlingly horrible anyway. It happens about ten pages from the end, and you read through it thinking seriously, is this really it? I felt so cross that I’d put up with bloody Eileen for a whole novel and that the climax was such…an anti-climax. It seemed seriously arrogant of Eileen to assume that anyone would be interested enough in her sordid life to want to stick around until the end – the lack of punchline was just the sort of sick joke I can imagine she’d want to inflict on someone.

But perhaps – because I’m keeping an open mind here – that’s the genius of this book. I’d like to think that the whole thing is an experiment in just how far the traditional rules of fiction can be subverted. Because usually you have to have some sort of empathy for the main character, you have to like at least something about them, whether it be their wit or their cunning or their naivety or just that their voice is so distinctive and strong. (Take Humbert Humbert in Lolita, for example, or Hannibal Lecter – neither have any redeeming features on paper, but both make for an engaging narrative!) There is nothing – and I mean nothing – to like about Eileen. It’s a feat of literary prowess that I was kept dangling along until the end of the novel and that’s why I’m finding it so difficult to know how to rate it – I can’t deny that the novel has made a big impression.

Eileen has no filter – she tells it exactly as it is, whether it’s the fact that she stalks a man she works with, or she dresses in her dead mother’s clothes – and for this reason you’ll find few novels that have such an uncomfortable, unsettling tone to them. If you’re interested in literature that’s far from the norm, that pushes boundaries, then you’ll want to at least dip your toe into this. I threw the book at the wall after I’d finished the last page and declared (to nobody in particular) that I hated it, but the fact that I’m writing about it now means that it’s been playing on my mind.

I’m hesitant to recommend it, because you might all want to kill me by the time you’ve finished it, but if you have read Eileen then please do let me know your thoughts in the comments below. A work of art? A boundary-pushing masterpiece? Or a day’s reading time that you’ll never get back?

Eileen is £5.84 at Amazon here.

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  1. Claire L
    March 7, 2017 / 6:36 pm

    Sounds like I’ll hate it too! I couldn’t stand One Day by David Nicholls even though loads of people declared it their favourite book at one time. I threw it in the bin straight after I’d finished it, I was so disappointed and didn’t even want to inflict it on anybody else! It’s rare I do that to a book, it has to alienate and disappoint me.

    • Aisling
      March 10, 2017 / 12:12 pm

      Me too! I was so disappointed in that book, and upset a lot of friends by saying as much. So much so that I decided I must have been in a bad mood when I read it, and I should give it another go. It didn’t improve on the 2nd reading, sadly!

      Ruth’s review reminds me of how I felt reading “The First Bad Man” by Miranda July. I THINK I’m glad I stuck with it because it was so out there, and really stayed with me, but it made for an uncomfortable read and I couldn’t recommend it to anyone without a warning!

  2. Melissa
    March 7, 2017 / 8:05 pm

    Love the specs!

  3. Janet
    March 7, 2017 / 8:15 pm

    I read this when it first came out. Kept waiting for it to get better (the description looked intriguing) but I never really could warm up to it. Too many descriptions of bodily functions! I “hate read” it to the end. My review: “meh!” I can’t believe it was shortlisted for the Booker. To make matters worse I actually had two books on my nightstand: “Eileen” and “Mothering Sunday” by Graham Swift–and I read Eileen first. Big mistake!

    • March 7, 2017 / 10:53 pm

      I’m never usually squeamish about the body stuff but it was just so raw!

  4. Maggie Kiely
    March 7, 2017 / 8:48 pm

    I read this in January this year. It was extremely dark and disturbing but drew me in and despite my revulsion at times I kept reading. I was shocked at Eileen’s living conditions and her life in general.
    The book is morbid and then some Eileen is walking breathing thinking misery. I felt she did not show any interest or care for anyone and I would certainly not suggest this as reading material for those with depressive leanings.
    The ending was satisfying and when I finished I couldn’t believe I was saying it but I thought it was a good well written (and for me) enjoyable. I can understand your struggle with it.

    • March 7, 2017 / 10:52 pm

      Yes good point about avoiding if prone to depression, it is very dark…

  5. Gemma
    March 7, 2017 / 9:04 pm

    I had the same intense feelings towards The woman upstairs.
    Unlikeable protagonist and I just couldn’t care less about her. Gah.
    It does seem to be a new literary trend…horrid protagonist or stories told from seemingly 101 perspective so you get so confused you barely remember who is who.

    • March 7, 2017 / 10:52 pm

      That’s on my list. Would you say to avoid it? x

      • Gemma
        March 8, 2017 / 6:38 am

        Yes!!! It’s another ‘non event’ book and the main character is just so unlikeable you just don’t want good things for her. I made myself finish it.

  6. Jess
    March 7, 2017 / 10:07 pm

    I feel much the same about this book – I couldn’t find anything redeeming in Eileen at all and felt deeply uncomfortable and unsettled the whole way through. It was fascinating hearing Ottessa talk at the shortlist readings about the character and how much affection she holds for her as a character, but if anything, left me feeling even more unsettled about Eileen.

    I didn’t *like* it. But it definitely stuck with me.

    • March 7, 2017 / 10:52 pm

      Oh I’ll look that up, is it online? I’d like to hear her discuss the book..

      • Jess
        March 8, 2017 / 12:15 pm

        Annoyingly I have had a look and it doesn’t seem to be online – but I seem to remember it being filmed at the time – possibly for a live stream. Seems to have disappeared off the web though, with only the 2013 shortlist readings up on TheManBooker youtube page! It would be nice to go back and be able to revisit the discussions.

        Definitely worth keeping an eye out for the shortlist readings in October though and checking to see if it is being streamed anywhere- it’s brilliant hearing the authors expand on their works.

    March 8, 2017 / 1:59 am

    I loved this book even though it’s a morbid and depressing read! Eileen certainly isn’t nice, she is complicated and disturbed but I still felt somewhat concerned about her and her awful life. All the characters were damaged misfits, could you imagine living in that town?!? I thought the author’s descriptive powers were excellent, I could sense the poverty and squalor and almost smell vile smells. It’s certainly a powerful book that stays with you. I have just taken the authors new book out of the library, it’s a volume of short stories called ‘Homesick for Another World’. I wonder if it will be lighter? x

  8. Julia
    March 8, 2017 / 2:22 am

    I’d just like to say that I found your review engaging & far more literary than it appears the novel itself is. Thanks for wading through Eileen and giving me a chuckle. I really enjoy your written voice!

  9. Cassandra
    March 8, 2017 / 9:20 am

    I don’t mind “uncomfortable” books as long as they give you something (not necessarily good) in the end. Sounds like a read I will avoid. Love your book reviews, keep them coming, if you are able.

  10. Emma
    March 8, 2017 / 1:37 pm

    I don’t know I’m kind of fascinated now! Although I could do with a mood lifting book and not a depressive one!

  11. Clare
    March 8, 2017 / 3:17 pm

    This is such a good, insightful review Ruth – you have a real skill for writing. Thanks for sharing with us x

  12. Hannah Chaney
    March 8, 2017 / 11:03 pm

    I love these book discussions! I haven’t read Eileen as a friend told me she hated it so much it made her feel angry and in need of a drink The book was finished and I expect chucked out the window in a rage, only to then be collected and taken down to the book bank to enrage someone else! Xx

  13. Christina
    March 9, 2017 / 8:58 am

    Man, that reminds me of my last hate read… exactly how I felt about Heinz Strunk’s The Golden Glove. And that is based on stuff that really happened (Hamburg, serial killer), by FAR the most depressing read ever!!

    • March 9, 2017 / 10:02 am

      Oh really? WHY does that now make me want to read it? Ha!

  14. bella
    March 9, 2017 / 3:20 pm

    Thanks for your review. It sounds horrible and I will read a sample of it, but I don’t think I can stomach the whole book.
    I started reading Nutshell by Ian McEwan and could not even read more than three pages. I think it is based on Hamlet. Has anybody else read it, because it is extremely hard to read?

    • March 10, 2017 / 9:23 am

      Nutshell was my favourite book of 2016! Yes, a Hamlet theme, but just keep persevering, I loved it. x

      • SusanW
        March 30, 2017 / 4:07 pm

        I loved Nutshell, too. What a concept for a story!

  15. Ginger
    March 10, 2017 / 11:08 pm

    Ruth, could you please make book reviews a regular feature on your blog? You’re so eloquent and have wonderful taste. On that note, I feel you once mentioned in a video that you’ve written a novel – I hope you are published soon.

    I’m torn between wanting to read this (a bit like looking at the scene of a car crash?) and wanting to desperately avoid it!

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