I came across this title a couple of times because it was nominated for a couple of literary awards. When it appeared on the longlist of the 2016 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, I decided it was one I should read.
The narrator is Eileen Dunlop, a woman in her 70s. She tells us the events in her life during a week around Christmas 1964 when she was 24 years of age, events which cause her to “run away from home and never go back.” As she says, “This is the story of how I disappeared.” Eileen lives with her drunken, emotionally abusive, and paranoid father, a retired policeman, in X-ville, near Boston. She works in a detention centre for teenage boys. Her life is regimented and seems pointless to her. Then Rebecca is hired on staff and everything changes.
There is a mystery in the novel. We know that Rebecca is the catalyst to Eileen’s disappearance since there is the repeated refrain of “until Rebecca” but we don’t know exactly how. The arrival of Rebecca “marked the beginning of the dark bond” but it is not until the last quarter of the book that events come to a climax and Eileen ceases to exist: “There’s no better way to say it: I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.”
Though there is suspense in the book which has been classified as a psychological thriller, it is, more so, a character study of a troubled woman. Eileen was full of self-loathing. Early on, she admits, “I hated my face with a passion.” She details what she hated: “I felt my mouth was horselike and ugly, and so I barely smiled” and “My own eyes, I thought, were like shallow lake water, green, murky, full of slime and sand.” Even “having to breathe was an embarrassment in itself.”
Eileen was emotionally repressed. She describes herself as “terribly sensitive, and determined never to show it” so she wore what she calls a “death mask.” She even practiced her death mask – “face in perfect indifference, no muscles twitching, eyes blank, still, brow furrowed ever so slightly.” She admits she was “very unhappy and angry all the time,” so “I looked so boring, lifeless, immune and unaffected, but in truth I was always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s.” There’s a great image she uses to describe her life: “life itself was like a book borrowed from the library – something that did not belong to me and was due to expire.” She felt invisible though she didn’t want to be: “I hoped they saw right through my death mask to my sad and fiery soul, though I doubt they saw me at all.” She was self-obsessed: “I was selfish, solely concerned with my own wants and needs.”
Her behaviour does not make her a likeable person. She states honestly, “I was a shoplifter, a pervert . . . and a liar.” Though she hid her body in her dead mother’s too-large, matronly clothes, she was fixated on her “nether regions”: “I worried that when anyone’s eyes cast downward, they were investigating my nether regions and could somehow decipher the complex and nonsensical folds and caverns wrapped up so tightly down there between my legs.” Though she calls herself a prude and admits that “sexual excitement nearly always made me feel sick,” she had dreams of rape: “Of course I hoped to be raped by only the most soulful, gentle, handsome of men, somebody who was secretly in love with me.” She “didn’t wash my hands after using the toilet” and didn’t shower, liking “to stew in my own filth sometimes.” She had a peculiar way to keep her composure: “When I was very upset, hot and shaking, I had a particular way of controlling myself. I found an empty room and grit my teeth and pinched my nipples while kicking the air like a cancan dancer until I felt foolish and ashamed.”
By chance, I just finished reading Martin John by Anakana Schofield which is also a character study of a misfit. Like the protagonist of that book, Eileen arouses the reader’s sympathy and revulsion at the same time. It is uncomfortable to be in Eileen’s head because she focuses so much on all that is ugly. Unlike Schofield’s book, however, this one offers hope because we know that Eileen goes on to become a better person: “I watched that old world go by, away and away, gone gone gone, until, like me, it disappeared.”
As a psychological thriller, this book is less successful. Its pace is too slow. But as a character study, it definitely succeeds.