The young heroine—if you can call her that—of Ottessa Moshfegh’s chilling debut is exactly the kind of woman whom noir authors tended to summarily ignore. Think of her as a Flannery O’Connor character wandering around a Raymond Chandler novel. Plain and desperately lonely to the point where even a handshake feels like an excruciatingly intimate encounter, the deeply disturbed Eileen lacks every trapping of the typical femme fatale. “You might take me for a nursing student or typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip,” she says. “The terrain of my face was heavy with soft, rumbling acne scars.” Eileen hides her figure beneath her dead mother’s ill-fitting clothes and despises her binge-drinking father, though not enough to murder him. (She simply wishes that the icicle above their door would impale him already.) It isn’t until a true noir dame gets a job at the boys’ reform school where Eileen works that we begin to see how dangerous she can be.
Moshfegh spends most of the book’s first half establishing Eileen, now a more adjusted older woman who’s narrating the story of what happened to her during a bitter Massachusetts winter when she was 24. At times Eileen’s backstory and the accounts of her bizarre behavior border on the tedious; it takes patience to get to the pulpy heart of the story. But once you’re finally there, watch out—Moshfegh uses that carefully constructed foundation to build a truly shocking ending, one you’ll never see coming. It’s hard to believe she’s a first-time novelist, so skillfully has she grafted disparate genre elements onto one another: psychological suspense, horror, obsession, and madness. Eileen is as twisted, dark, and unexpected as its title character. B+
THE OPENING LINE “I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography…”