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Literary ‘misery’ featuring a misanthropic anti-heroine

Set in 1960s New England, this Man Booker Prize short-listed novel is a dark and claustrophobic tale about a young woman who has very little to recommend her beyond her acute skills of observation. Narrated by her older self, the story focuses on the events of one bitterly cold week with flashes forward and back to give the it depth and tension. Eileen emerges as a lonely young woman who lives in a filthy run-down house with her alcoholic bully of a father, wears her dead mother’s ill-fitting clothes, exists on peanuts, laxatives and crackers and despite an almost religious prudishness has an obsession with bodily functions and fluids – her own and those of other people.

It is cold, she rarely washes and she fantasizes about death.  A lot. To add to this miserable picture she has a job as an administrative assistant in a harsh correctional facility for young male criminals. She (unsurprisingly) has no friends and harbours a secret desire for a co-worker, whom she stalks. Then the enticingly charismatic Rebecca arrives, and everything changes.

A few clues are dropped for the reader early on so we know something dark and dramatic is going to happen that will result in Eileen’s disappearance, but the build up is for me far too long and drawn out, with the action unevenly concentrated in the final chapter of the book. So however lucid the prose, however chilling (literally) the descriptions of climate, place and person, it is hard to sympathise sufficiently with this central deeply unappealing character to care about what happens to her.

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There are some who object to the extension of the Man Booker Prize’s remit from the work of British and Commonwealth writers to all English language writers. On the basis of this offering on the 2016 shortlist I’m tempted to agree.

Eileen is published by Vintage, 272 pages.