After reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation at the beginning of the year and being utterly surprised by it and pushed out of my comfort zone I decided to buy Eileen. The opportunity happened during my recent visit to New York, when I finally had some time to go to the Strand Book Store. When my pile got to seven books and I had to balance it with my chin I decided it was time to go, even though I probably didn’t even walk a mile of the famous 18 miles of books. Luckily Eileen was in the pile.
Eileen Dunlop tells us the story of her young self. Clearly, our narrator is now way older and is, in fact, a different person, as she tells is herself. She remembers the last few days of her old life when she was 24, in 1964, living in X-ville in New England. It was a miserable life, there’s no doubt about it. Eileen has loathed herself and everyone else. She is a character whom we’d step away with disgust if we met her in real life. Not only an outsider, she actively tries to get people to avoid her and keep away.
Eileen works in juvenile prison, lives with her father, an ex-policeman and a current raging alcoholic. Her mother died, Eileen had to come back from college to take care of her during her last months and now remains at home taking care of her father. At some point, we find out Eileen has a sister, a complete opposite, cheerful, lively, happy to do anything to be surrounded by people and have a man. Quite obviously the sisters are not close.
Early in the book the present time Eileen alludes that her life is about to change. She describes her miserable circumstances, the dilapidated and uncared for house, the horrid work in a boys prison, toxic relationship with her father, her own obsession with one of the prison guards. Her life is lonely, cold and sad and she knows it. But instead of wallowing in self-pity she prefers to wallow in self-loathing, not washing, not caring about her appearance at all, continuously committing social transgressions (not washing her hands after going to the toilet etc.), or minor crimes (habitually shoplifting).
Eileen feels rejected by the world and violently kicks back at it. She fluctuates between apathy and spending days in bed in the cold attic and obsessive stalking of Randy (one of the prison guards). She is sexually repressed and she knows it, she also has an eating disorder, her hate for herself focused first and foremost on the body. In her focus on her own suffering she is completely blind to the situation in the prison and the ordeal the boys are going through, again she freely admits that. When she is not working or stalking Randy she either considers suicide or an escape to New York, never finding the motivation to go ahead with either of those options.
On one hand, she is disgusting and irritating in her lack of self-hygiene, her selfishness, but also her refusal to do anything about her situation. On the other hand, she is like a small child that wants to spite everyone because it is unhappy, it almost feels that if someone showed her some warmth, washed and fed her, she may stand a chance. She is awful, but not inherently bad. Which is what makes this book so sad, but also what reminded me of My Year of Rest…
One day Rebecca Saint John appears in prison, and it feels like she will be this person to wash Eileen’s face and give her a hug. Eileen quickly falls in love with her, with the idea of having a friend, of being accepted, of being wanted. She is like a sunflower turning towards Rebecca, opening up, but also controlling herself to make the best impression possible. She does not want to spoil the only chance for the friendship she sees.
Only Rebecca has her own agenda…and I’ll stop at this.
It is difficult to say I liked this book because I could not stop thinking about the bad smells that had to be present in nearly every scene. It was a read I did not want to put aside, though. And that is a lot with the main character who is mean, self-centred and horrible and with the plot that is there but mostly serves the character development.
It is difficult for me not to compare this book to My Year of Rest…, not to find out which one is better, they are both very good in their own weird way, but for me there was no escaping comparing the characters. Eileen and the narrator of My Year of Rest… are both extremely lonely, both damaged, by wildly different experiences but still, both unable of normal social relations and both claiming they do not need them. They pick different ways of dealing with those issues, but for me, there was something unsettlingly similar in both characters. And they are both very, very sad, even when they are awful people.