Capsule reviews: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh + This House Is Not For Sale, by E.C. Osondu

Once again, my eyes are bigger than my stomach, metaphorically speaking—I requested an arseload (that’s a technical term) of pre-pubs that were all releasing at the beginning of March, and despite my best efforts with a color-coded Google Sheets spreadsheet, I am at least a week behind on reviewing. Capsule reviews to the rescue! (The great virtue of capsule reviewing these two books in particular is that there is so much to be said about them, and enjoyed about the experience of reading them, that I can just give you the tiniest sense of it, and then you can go buy them and enjoy them for yourselves.)

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh (Jonathan Cape)

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You probably know a good deal about this already, so I’ll keep it brief. The plot: Eileen Dunlop’s mother is dead, her father a neglectful alcoholic. She’s twenty-four years old, a virgin, and works as a secretary in a boys’ prison outside an unnamed New England town (she calls it X-ville.) “This is the story,” she proclaims early on, “of how I disappeared.” The week before Christmas, the charismatic Rebecca St John comes to work at the prison as a child psychologist. Her beauty and mystery completely captivate Eileen, and lead her to commit a dreadful crime.

There are a couple of brilliant things about this book. One is the character of Eileen herself, who is undeniably very, very strange. Her relationship to her own body is one of mingled fascination and disgust. She finds herself revolting, almost wallowing in the idea of other people’s revulsion. The very notion of sex seems both ridiculous and defiling, but at the same time, she’s obsessed by it. She doesn’t masturbate, but she’s something of an emetophile, taking copious amounts of laxatives in order to empty her body into a state of vacant, semi-conscious ecstasy. Reading Eileen’s comments on her own physicality (which she makes, as she narrates the whole novel, from a position of adulthood, nearly sixty years in the future) is an intensely disturbing experience, but it rings so true. Teenage girls are still taught that their bodies are shameful, that they take up too much space, that their smells and sounds and tastes and very existences are somehow foul. Eileen captures the adolescent awkwardness of it (“Breathing was an embarrassment”) while also going far, far beyond the norm.

Rebecca St John, as the villain (or something like it), is simultaneously utterly false and utterly compelling. Her description–coppery hair, lithe and stylish–made me think of her as a physical cross between Daphne from Scooby-Doo, and Erin Winters from John Allison’s Scary Go Round comics. She’s a cardboard siren, but that’s absolutely the point: Eileen is such a naif that Rebecca’s attention bowls her over completely, even though we see both the calculation and the ease of deception. Rebecca barely needs to try. Eileen’s half in love with her, even though she goes to tremendous lengths to assure us that she’s not a lesbian.

The other brilliant thing about Eileen is the pacing. You know something awful is going to happen, because you’ve been told so from the very beginning, but you’ve got no idea what it is. The way that older, narrating Eileen mentions Rebecca (“I wonder if she’s married now”) makes it clear that she doesn’t kill her, but also that when she runs away, Rebecca’s not with her. Those two obvious avenues of plot being closed, the novel has to twist pretty hard, which it obligingly does. When you finally realize what’s going on, as in the best noir and thrillers, you think, “Oh, of course!”, but you also hadn’t quite guessed it. (Or I hadn’t. Although I am notoriously bad at this sort of thing.) The action is drawn out over the course of a week, and since it’s told in retrospect, you get little hints from the narrating Eileen, but it’s still a pretty sharp surprise when the point that everything has been building to finally arrives. I read it with my pulse racing. Writing a book that actually does that is hard. Moshfegh’s imagination is a dark and unapologetic place. I hope she writes another novel soon.

This House Is Not For Sale, by E.C. Osondu (Granta Books)

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From freezing New England to sweltering Nigeria: E.C. Osondu’s second book is sold as a novel, but feels much more like a collection of short stories. vignettes concerning the inhabitants of the Family House in an unnamed city (though, given its topography, it’s probably Lagos). The self-mythologising that surrounds the house, and the family that lives there, starts on page one, when we learn “How the House Came to Be” through a kind of Just So Stories parable: a man who gives a king the secret to long life is given the land as a reward, and eventually, the king builds him a handsome mansion there. But the gift is two-edged: sure, it’s to say thank you, but it’s also so that the king can keep an eye on the man. He’s to be killed in the event that the king dies of anything other than simple old age. That dynamic–of debt and power, bestowing and withholding–defines the Family House from its inception.

The narrator is a little boy who lives there. We know almost nothing about him, though he refers to the patriarch as Grandpa. He does not intrude much into his own stories: instead, he’s a preternaturally observant child, watching the currents of favour, disfavour, money and prestige flowing through the Family House’s rooms. Grandpa can give, and Grandpa can take away. He bestows wives upon husbands (women are commodities); he takes cruel retribution upon a woman accused of stealing from him. He does provide shelter, clothing, and a livelihood for many of his poorer family members and hangers-on from “the village”, but those gifts are always Faustian bargains. If you receive anything from Grandpa, you belong to him.

Increasingly, the book features a Greek chorus of voices–disembodied, floating in the text–which belong to the neighbours. There are murmurings about the Family House, as well as about its individual denizens. People’s reputations rise and fall. The general chatter of the neighbourhood is characterised by hypocrisy: when someone is on the upward swing of popularity, their praises are sung far and wide, but if they challenge Grandpa, or behave in a deviant manner, they’re publicly denigrated. There’s very little room for difference here, although sometimes accommodations are made. Baby, a brain-damaged young woman, is married off to a prosperous female trader named Janet; the arrangement is that Janet provides for her as a husband would, while at the same time any children that Baby bears by other men will be generally considered to belong to Janet, not Baby. It’s a curious combination of pimping and problem-solving. In the event, Baby disappears after the wedding (she claims to have been kidnapped by witch doctors) and returns several months later in a state of disarray, prompting Janet to seek an annulment. Meanwhile, a prodigal son returns from America with a degree (in what, no one can quite grasp) and begins to throw “salons” frequented by community outliers such as “Man-Woman” the hairdresser. Unable to countenance the growing gossip about his son’s predilections, Grandpa quietly orders him away again, with the understanding that he can never return.

It’s a very slim book–I finished it in a day–but an oddly powerful one. There’s a lot of pain in it, but you get an excellent sense of the interconnectedness of family relationships, the importance of supporting your own and the power that accrues to people who are in a position to lend others a hand. Of course it corrupts; we shouldn’t be surprised that Grandpa has turned into a tyrant. He is paying the piper, after all. The book ends as the narrator and his cousin, Ibe, watch the house being bulldozed. The bulldozer runs out of electricity, which is blamed on the many layers of curses that cast-off family members (mostly women) have laid upon the house over the years. But a battery is found; time marches on; the balance of power shifts. The Family House, with its complicated freight of cruelty and community, warmth and hatred, inevitably comes down.

Thanks very much to Joe Pickering at Cape, and Natalie Shaw at Granta, for the review copies. Eileen and This House Is Not For Sale (in paperback) were published in the UK on 3 March.

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11 thoughts on “Capsule reviews: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh + This House Is Not For Sale, by E.C. Osondu

  1. I read a short story of Ottessa Moshfegh’s a month or two ago and it was capital-D Dark. Can’t say I’m super excited to read Eileen, but you’ve made quite the case for its merits!

  2. A friend lent me Eileen when I was laid up with torn ligaments and I loved it. The character of Eileen was such an amazing creation, fascinating and repelling at the same time.

  3. Eileen sounds like a Patrica Highsmith novel. I must get it! Based on the comments and your opening about the book, it sounds like everyone knows about this book already! Not me, though. The house book sounds interesting, too, though I wonder if it is a spoiler to know the house is bulldozed in the end!

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