When I wasn’t able to immediately download Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation from the library, I opted to read her earlier acclaimed novel “Eileen” (short-listed for the Man Booker Prize) to read in the meantime. It’s a very strange story about a damaged young woman named Eileen Dunlop. At the age of 24 she still lives with her widowed father, an emotionally abusive alcoholic who constantly belittles her while depending on her for his daily gin runs. Her father is a retired cop in their small town and because of his former status in the community his fellow officers enable and tolerate his increasingly bizarre behaviours. It’s through his connections that Eileen is given a job working at Moorehouse, a local juvenile prison facility where she performs minor clerical work processing incoming teenage inmates.
The story covers the span of a few weeks late in 1964 and is told in the first person by Eileen as she looks back on her life from the perspective of an old woman whose adventures, mistakes and stories are behind her (which makes her a baby boomer). Working at Moorehouse is boring and Eileen’s only passion is her great crush on her coworker and a former inmate Randy. She loves everything about him and spends her solitary weekends surveilling his apartment from her father’s old Dodge to make sure he doesn’t already have a girlfriend.
The constant put-downs by her late mother and her drunken father have left Eileen emotionally beaten up. She hates herself and the resulting lack of self-esteem is manifested in an eating disorder and inattention to her personal appearance. She neglects her diet as well as her grooming and wears her dead mother’s old clothes. Then, a bright, beautiful new woman called Rebecca joins the prison staff and Eileen’s life takes on new energy and sense of optimism.
I became engaged in Eileen’s story right from page one. She frequently alludes to what happened later and that mystery is part of what kept me reading. Despite the entire series of events spanning only a few weeks, it progresses in chronological order which is how I personally like to read a book. Stories that jump back and forth in time always annoy and confuse me. The biggest appeal of reading Eileen is the author’s off-beat writing style and black humour. Eileen is a sympathetic character and her peculiar perspective on life is fascinating. We’re constantly rooting for her and want her to win.
From tolerating and enabling a father she clearly hates to functioning in her dreary life on a daily basis, Eileen’s story sounds like it would be boring and depressing but it’s not. I loved it and blasted through it in a couple of days. Now, I can hardly wait to read her latest book My Year of Rest and Relaxation. If you liked Eleanor Oliphant, you’ll probably enjoy this one too. I’d rate Eileen 9 out of 10.