**spoiler alert** It's kind of hard to believe how MUCH is in this tiny, seemingly simple, story. The language is so basic, and there are two main thr**spoiler alert** It's kind of hard to believe how MUCH is in this tiny, seemingly simple, story. The language is so basic, and there are two main thrusts in terms of narrative: 1) the story of Addie and Louis - a coming together at the end of their lives for companionship and - eventually - sex. Very sweet and loving. 2) the intrusion into that coming together of Addie and Louis by Addie's grandson Jamie, and his father Gene, Addie's good-for-nothing son.
The novel pulled at my heartstrings in many ways (coz kids and old people, right? vulnerable, dependent, fragile), but where I think its emotional power resides is in the collision of this gentle, sweet love story (whose sweetness was pretty much all about Addie's courage and Louis's kindness and the fact that they were aged 70, when the pursuit and potential for love and companionship is often abandoned but so sorely needed) with the violence and disruption (view spoiler)[(the implicit and explicit child neglect/abuse and, eventually, elder abuse) (hide spoiler)] of the Jamie/Gene story line.
The novel is really subtle in how it weaves these two narratives together - with Addie's love, courage and autonomy ultimately giving way to her guilt, fear and dependence. Everyone ends up (or remains) battered and damaged. And so what starts out as a simple little love story with a bit of a unique twist turns very dark, profoundly sad, deeply moving.
Eileen is a triumph of narrative voice, and that is the single reason why I am giving this novel four stars. From the distance of many years hence, EiEileen is a triumph of narrative voice, and that is the single reason why I am giving this novel four stars. From the distance of many years hence, Eileen narrates a week-long series of events that occurred to her leading to her departure from her hometown at the age of 24, where she was living a life of squalor, despair and servitude to her alcoholic father.
An old woman now whose circumstances are unclear, Eileen is -- or at least was -- one hot mess. But a compelling one. I found her absolutely fascinating: a mass of insecurities, fantasies, drunkenness, physical decreptitude (with a not insignificant degree of body dysmorphia), emotional volatility and inconsistencies hidden behind what she tells us is a "death mask". Ridden by fears and anxieties, she is the product of truly awful life circumstances. She never bathes. She wears her dead mother's clothes. She drinks to excess with her father in a squalid house; stalks a co-worker -- her only sexual outlet (she's never had a date, or rather, had one for her prom which went terribly badly). She is easy prey to a glamourous teacher who arrives in town -- but who exactly is prey and who predator? (To be honest, neither one of them possesses the competency or confidence to be true sociopaths, contributing to the culminating event degenerating into farce).
Eileen is a misfit and an outcast and a self-admitted oddball.
There's a great amount of humour here - unintentional, for the most part, although it's born of some kind of survival instinct and a self-deprecatory approach to this hostile world, in which Eileen rages mutely and wants nothing more to leave via an act of violence to herself or her father (it seems to be the only way out for her). And though the potential for great violence hovers in the air always in this novel, propelling it forward, there is simultaneously a sense - per above - that Eileen is just too damn damaged to pull anything off. So, quickly, the novel becomes less about the dramatic tension of whatever is going to happen to drive Eileen out of town, and more about its inevitability based on Eileen herself, her life circumstances, her pathos.
It's absurd, and dark, and we are really not laughing at her, but with her. And we (at least I) liked her. Mostly. The framing device of Eileen as an old woman, telling the story of who she was, creates an honesty and vulnerability that is endearing. Not entirely (or at all) believable, but the reader is in on the joke - and we (at least I) found a place of tremendous compassion for her, side-by-side with repulsion and horror.
To be sure, there are moments where Eileen reveals the full scope of the emotional damage that has been done to her, and we sense a chilling coldness, a lack of empathy that might be described as sociopathic, if one were to choose to put a label on it.
But there are also moments -- and more of them -- that fall in between, for example a scene she narrates where a young neighbourhood boy had shovelled her driveway and she invites him in to pay him. She ends up kissing him (and scaring him away for good). From her perspective, the moment unfolds with a certain innocence, and as a reader it came across as less predatory than simply socially awkward (to an extreme degree) - similar to many, many other scenes in which older-Eileen reflects on younger-Eileen's behaviour, and gives the reader a glimpse into what this behaviour looked like, albeit a glimpse tinged by her own unreliability and considerable ambiguity.
This is a just one of many scenes that are difficult to interpret in terms of how, exactly, disordered Eileen really is. Mostly, I landed somewhere in the middle where I had compassion for this woman whose personality seems to have developed in a complete vacuum and who is, essentially, just plain lonely and really badly broken.
There is, as mentioned, the incessant march toward Christmas Eve day when Eileen is forced to leave her small Massachusetts (? - New England somewhere) town forever. We don't know why, we just know it's coming and so we are filtering all of her behaviour through that lens. When it does come, it's a) not what we expect; and b) told again in this minimizing, detached voice which nevertheless reveals that there is true chaos, disorder, violence occurring - inept as it is - and it's all the more chilling for that.
Oh and also: (view spoiler)[the climactic moment occurs within the context of Eileen's work at a 'children's prison' - a house of horrors that she is numb to, or dissociated from, or unable to empathize with. Leonard Polk, and his mother, and Rebecca (some kind of instrument of 'justice' - but also distorted and just plain odd); the prison itself, and the abuses that go on; all of these are mere backdrop for plot. (hide spoiler)]What actually happens to drive Eileen out of town is less important (at least, it was to me when reading) than Eileen's psychology, her responses to it, the catalyst it proved to be.
It's sort of awful. It's awful because the true horror in this novel passes as scenery, unremarkable in some way. Eileen herself walks - literally, walks - out of town and away from it all and - we seem to be told - goes on to live a relatively good life. She takes great pains to tell us that she is never caught; that no one even comes looking for her. The ineptitude of her act and departure - which simply must have left a trail of clues a mile wide - suggests that no one really cared to look. And that's the tragedy at the heart of this novel. That, and the horror she both experienced and contributed to, which remain behind like a bad smell.
It's an unsettling book. But an amazing authorial feat. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more