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EILEEN by Ottessa Moshfegh Kirkus Star


by Ottessa Moshfegh

Pub Date: Aug. 18th, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-59420-662-7
Publisher: Penguin Press

A woman recalls her mysterious escape from home in this taut, controlled noir about broken families and their proximity to violence.

Moshfegh’s second novel (McGlue, 2014) is set in 1964 in a scruffy Northeastern town that’s a close neighbor to Joyce Carol Oates–land and Russell Banks–ville. The title character is a plain-Jane type stuck in a miserable job (secretary at a boys’ prison) and an even worse home life (she minds her desperately alcoholic father in an unkempt house). And though the story takes place in the days before Christmas, holiday cheer is in short supply; Eileen Dunlop describes the imprisoned boys and her contemplation of suicide with a casual, implacable cool. “People died all the time? Why couldn’t I?” The sole shaft of light arrives in the form of Rebecca Saint John, a new education director at the prison who rapidly becomes an unhealthy source of emotional solace—at one of their first meetings, Eileen is so desperate to impress she winds up a drunken mess, and there’s worse to come. Moshfegh has Eileen constantly drop hints about a climactic incident that prompts her escape from “X-ville,” but she withholds details until very near the novel’s end. But instead of testing the reader’s patience, the narrative masterfully taunts—eschewing the typical dips and rises of a novel, Moshfegh manages a slow, steady build so that the release, when it comes, registers a genuine shock. And Moshfegh has such a fine command of language and her character that you can miss just how inside out Eileen’s life becomes in the course of the novel, the way the “loud, rabid inner circuitry of my mind” overtakes her. Is she inhumane or self-empowered? Deeply unreliable or justifiably jaded? Moshfegh keeps all options on the table while keeping her heroine coherent.

A shadowy and superbly told story of how inner turmoil morphs into outer chaos.