Ottessa Moshfegh is all about characters over plot. I cannot find the review I read that made me think I’d appreciate this book – but I think I picked it up based on the author and how much I enjoyed My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I’m not mad that I gave this book a try – as it happens, I DO value characters as much as, if not over, plot – but it also was way less successful for me than MYoRaR. This is a dark book, with very few characters to root for and plenty of allusions to the abuse of children. It didn’t feel like the abuse was gratuitous – again, it served to deepen our understanding of characters, it wasn’t necessarily part of the plot – but it was still quite heavy. I might understand WHY the character was saying / doing / thinking / learning about these events, but that didn’t make the book more meaningful, enjoyable, or add some sort of depth that couldn’t have been accomplished in another way, IMO.
Eileen is a woman who wasn’t – an almost-person, whose life was transformed. The narrator is whoever Eileen morphed into, years after the events of the novel, giving us both the perspective of 1964 Eileen and present day (around 2014) not-Eileen. Present day narrator has a decent amount of empathy for the trash human Eileen was – she had a small, unforgiving life, and in that dreary circumstance she was consumed with mostly thoughts about herself (which isn’t that different from how most of us are in our early lives, honestly). Eileen worked at a juvenile prison, a horrible institution, where she ignores the majority of the abuse taking place around her until she is rather forced to deal with at least one particular case thanks to the arrival of a new “teacher” in the prison. She lives with her alcoholic father, who never has a kind word to say to her. Her mother has died, and she is starving for someone to give her attention and maybe a little love. We learn what happened over the course of a week around Christmas in 1064 that released Eileen from her life in that small town. While there are poetic moments stashed here and there – Moshfegh is a truly gifted writer and I’m never upset to read a book full of her wry observations about the world – the book leaned very far into the dark places our minds and bodies can go.
I can appreciate that Moshfegh never shies away from the fullness of what makes us human. She’s funny and tragic all at once – rooted in both self loathing and an exaltation of the self. Often, Eileen is literally dirty, because although this is a character study unlike so many books it doesn’t stick to her MIND but also allows the character to inhabit a fully human BODY. These are things I can appreciate – but overall, this novel wasn’t quite for me. It might be for you, though! It was well written, and although it wasn’t a page-turning mystery there were certainly elements of foreshadowing that paid off with a vaguely Hitchcockian twist near the end. If you’re into dark and twisty, and not too put off by body odor/ mentions of abuse (which feels odd to write but I think it’s very normal for readers to be interested in the darker side of human nature), I’d definitely put it on your TBR, with appropriately modest expectations.