Man Booker Longlist 2016 – 5

There have been many grotesques in literature, both fictional and real. It would be hopelessly tedious to name even a few, and probably mine are not the same as yours, anyway.

EileenBut the eponymous grotesque in the new novel by Ottessa Moshfegh is right up there near the top of the list. Of all the books on the longlist that I have read so far, Eileen is outstandingly the creepiest, most unsettling book.  I would go so far as to say, the most disturbing book I have read in a very long while.

Quite apart from the fact that Eileen is a really ghastly woman: grimy, dysfunctional, anorexic, sexually deluded AND virginal.  She is quite simply unpleasant.

One cannot blame her exactly for any of these qualities. Her upbringing, even before her mother died, was inadequate to say the least.  Her father is a drunk and is now retired from the police force; the house they live in is squalid, filthy and neglected; Eileen is in a dead-end job in a local youth offending institute, a job she took up to be near her mother in her last, thankless, illness and one she has never had the energy to leave; X-ville, where she lives seems to be a dead-beat place and on top of that her fantasies of leaving to find a better life are hopelessly unrealistic.

The novel is written from a first person perspective some fifty years on from the events that Eileen describes, but the coldly impersonal way that she tells the story indicates in some measure her lack of empathy. Her cruel observations about the boys in the institute and her immediate colleagues; her sexual fantasies about the in-aptly named Randy; and her deluded ideas about friendship all add up to a picture of a dismal lack of self-awareness.

That she has got away is clear, and it is also clear that she has found some sort of a life, though exactly what is not made obvious; she mentions two marriages but now is gleefully living alone.

However, this book is almost un-put-downable.

In spite of the fact that reading it made me feel dirty, I kept reading; transfixed and struggling, I turned page after page long into the night. The writing absolutely nails the subject, it is totally remarkable. In tone, mood and characterisation it is a masterpiece.

Ottessa Mossfegh is another American author, which makes three so far, though there are more in the pile.

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