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Review | Eileen By Ottessa Moshfegh

Another year, another frenzied scramble to read the all the books on the Man Booker Prize Shortlist. One that stood out to me this year was Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. I’ve was trudging away at One Thousand Years of Solitude (will review this behemoth next) for what feels like a the timeline of the book itself, so Eileen was a much welcomed follow up reading. 

The book was a engrossing, quick read, so I’ll try to keep it snappy for the review as well. Eileen is about a young woman in her early 20s, the book’s namesake, and (there’s no better way to say it) her miserable life in 1960s New England. Sounds depressing? It kind of is. But of course there’s much to dig up; let’s start with the theme of self-hate, which underpins this somewhat twisted coming-of-age story. 

Eileen, as I’ve mentioned, is one unhappy young woman. The only thing she despises more than her family, job, and acquaintances is, regrettably herself. There are the usual culprits here: emotionally abuse parent, eating disorder, mental illness, alcoholism, the list goes on. At this point in the book, it all feels pretty typical. As The Guardian helpfully pointed out, the first half of the book resonates similarly to that of The Bell Jar, unsurprising a favourite of mine. Impoverished women from single parent families on the fringe, or in the midst of, complete mental breakdown. 

Following the arguably generic plot lines and choices in character development in the first half, Eileen begins to take an interesting turn upon the introduction of an new character in the latter half. From here, the book quickly picks up pace, much of it due to the reader’s curiosity about the character’s intentions and purpose. From there, the book takes a drastic turn, leading all the way up to a rather shocking climax. I’ll leave it here, as not to give away the most important plot line.

In its essence, the book is a raw account of a person who’s stunted growth and personal development has made her servile to her situation. Feeling trapped but too afraid to make an escape, her anger turns into an aggressive form of self-loathing, manifesting in her inability to interact with and understand others. In spite of her extreme isolation and immaturity, she does manage to pass the threshold of adulthood with admirable fervour and confidence, prompting the reader to finally witness the fortitude, having been hardened by her upbringing. 

All in all, Eileen is an interesting, albeit not new, look into our innate, never-diminishing need to be nurtured, and the devastating consequences of when negligence takes it’s place. Even the most cynical among us become blind when faced with the promise of empathy and understanding from another, making us vulnerable to the harsh reality of human nature.