Tag Archives: Eileen

Outsiders in Fiction

My recent reading has included several novels that show us the world of the isolate, the outsider. Not just young women trying to make their way in the teeth of family and social opposition, but people who just are not fitting in.

I guess they appeal to readers, because reading is so often an isolated activity, and writers too for the same reason. But more than that. Fiction about outsiders makes us see the world we inhabit from the outside. It is not always a comforting vision.

Here are five works of fiction that do this rather well:

  1. Free Day by Ines Cagnati 
  2. Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini
  3. Nagasaki by Eric Faye
  4. Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins
  5. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

I expect you can think of books to add to this list.

Free Day by Ines Cagnati 

Translated from the French by Liesl Schilling, who also writes the Introduction.

The outsider in this novella is a double outsider: her family are Italian immigrants in France, and she has a life apart from her family. Galla is 14 years old, living in rural France in the 1950s. She attends the Catholic girls’ school but at great cost. Neither of her parents wanted her to go – she is a boarder – because she is useful on the farm. At school the girls and the teachers look down on her for her poverty, except Fanny, who may be imaginary.

The novella follows Galla on a trip home on an unanticipated day off. She rides the 20 or so miles on an old unreliable bike. It is winter and she arrives as night falls. The farmhouse is locked and she is unable to attract the attention of her mother to let her in. She spends the night with the dog Daisy and her puppy. In the morning she returns to school, through the frost, falling from time to time on black ice. Her reception when she arrives at school is surprisingly warm, and she falls into bed. In the morning it becomes apparent that Galla must return to the farm. We know that she will have to take on the burdens of her mother.

Free Day by Ines Cagnati, first published as Le Jour de congé in 1973. English version issued by nyrb in 2019. 143pp

Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini

 

Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden

This novella is about an old man who lives alone in the Alps, beginning to lose his memory, but staunchly a loner. He is befriended by a dog, but rejects the overtures of the local ranger. During the winter the man and dog endure hardship as they live out the cold and empty months, until they find a foot in the snow. Fearing it is the ranger the man seeks to hide it. It is bleak, funny and tragic.

Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, first published in 2015 and the English version by Peirene in 2019. 174 pp

Nagasaki byEric Faye (2012)

Translated from the French by Emily Boyce.

This novella features two outsiders. Based on a real event, this is the story of a woman who hides in a solitary man’s house in Nagasaki in Japan. He finds her after several months, because she had been stealing from his fridge. The story is about the man’s isolation and his shock at being invaded in his home. The women tells her story in a letter of apology. Another bleak novella. 

Nagasaki by Eric Faye, first published in 2012, and the English version by Gallic in 2014. 109pp

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

The original Harriet

Another story of isolation based on the historical events of the Penge murder in 1877. The story follows the fortunes of those involved with Harriet, simple but well-off, who is married for her money and then four adults are involved in starving her to death. The motivation of the quartet is well described, believable that they more or less fell into it, each from their own twisted selfishness. That people are capable of such cruelty, especially to one ‘with learning difficulties’ – as we would say – is shocking.

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins was first published in 1934. It was re-issued by Persephone Books in 2012. 320pp

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016.

This is a dark tale, well-told. Eileen is the name of the narrator, who is in her early 20s living in Xville, in 1964. Her mother has died, her father is a drunk. Eileen works in a lowly admin job in the local prison for young offenders, and hates her life, herself, her father, her surroundings and her prospects. Eileen is aware that she lives in a bubble and that far from being despised by everyone, she is not noticed.

She becomes involved with sophisticated Rebecca who gets a job at the prison and then with the case of a boy who has killed his father. The two women decide to take action against his mother who they believe is also complicit. Eileen finally escapes Xville but one feels that in the immediate future her actions are not likely to be any better judged.

It is surprising and revulsion-inducing throughout, but in the end its hard to know who is the victim and who the wrong doer. That’s life.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (2016) Vintage 260pp For a full review see my post from Dec 2016

And of course, the archetypal outsider is by the French writer, Albert Camus: L’Etranger. Published in 1942, a French Algerian young man shoots another man on the beach, and appears indifferent to the consequences of the murder.

Over to youCan you add to the list of outsiders in fiction with any recommended reads?

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Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

This is a dark book, not so much frightening as – well, dark. Although in her 20s the narrator, Eileen, appears to be obsessed in the ways that adolescents can be: bodily functions, secret passions, easily influenced, hard exterior. She does not have much going in her favour in the novel: a dreary job, a dead mother, a drunken father. And she lives in a town so dull that she calls it X-ville.

It’s a book that has done very well in the literary awards and accolades:

  • Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016
  • Shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize 2016
  • Shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger Award 2016
  • Hemmingway Foundation/PEN award.
  • Selected as a Book of the Year 2016 in The Times, Observer and Daily Telegraph

The Story

The story is located in coastal New England, near Boston, in 1964 at Christmas time. The narrator is reflecting on events 50 years before. Eileen is introduced to us as a rather non-descript kind of young woman, with few memorable or redeeming features.

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, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I look like nothing special. It’s easy for me to imagine this girl, a strange, young and mousy version of me, carrying an anonymous leather purse or eating from a small package of peanuts, rolling each one between her gloved fingers sucking in her cheeks, staring anxiously out of the window. (1)

All readers know that appearances can deceive.

Eileen works in an admin job in the local prison for young offenders. She has no friends, no interests except for her at-a-distance obsession with the guard Randy. She lives with her father, a drunk and an ex-policeman who is a liability to his daughter and his neighbours. Neither of them make any effort to keep the house clean or pay attention to what they eat. Eileen has taken to keeping his shoes in the trunk of her car so that he will not wander out and terrorise the neighbours. A local policeman takes her father’s service pistol off him and gives it to Eileen for safe keeping. Her father ignores Eileen, or makes abusive comments to her. She considers killing him, much as she wonders about being saved by Randy.

Then just before Christmas Rebecca arrives at the prison to take up an education job. It is clear to the reader that this young woman is unsuitable for the post, but Eileen is immediately in awe of her. Her sophisticated taste in dress is entirely inappropriate. The young women go out drinking together and Rebecca, more knowledgeable about the world, abandons Eileen to the attentions of a barman. Rebecca shows too close an interest in one of the boys in the prison.

When Rebecca invites Eileen around to her house for a Christmas Eve drink, Eileen anticipates an exotic evening in tasteful surroundings. Many things are unexpected in this book, but the reader is not surprised that the evening turns out to be very different, critical in Eileen’s young life, even if the events themselves are surprising.

Some themes in Eileen

Patricide by badly fathered children threads its way through this novel. The children in the prison, Eileen herself, and perhaps Rebecca all appear very damaged by poor parenting. Eileen is well on the way to becoming as much of a drunk as her father. She has learned to keep what she calls her death mask face for the outside world.

Another theme is the allure of the other for deprived people, especially deprived young people, and especially if they live in a dull city like X-ville. The unknown is the attraction of Randy for Eileen at the outset of the novel, and of Rebecca as it proceeds. We pick up clues that Eileen managed to create a life for herself, albeit not a very happy one, after leaving X-ville.

And death and physical danger and unsettling details lurk in every scene. At one point you learn that Eileen’s mother died while her daughter slept beside her. We find that Eileen dresses in her mother’s clothes, which are mostly too big for her. She drives a car that is in danger of killing the occupants from a leaking exhaust. Her physical fixations are hardly less than disgusting. The state of the house she shares with her father is no less revolting.

The narrator is aware of some of her own shortcomings.

There was a reason I worked at the prison, after all. I wasn’t exactly a pleasant person. I thought I would have preferred to be a teller in a bank, but no bank would have taken me. For the best, I suppose. I doubt it would have been long before I stole from the till. Prison was a safe place for me to work. (174)

And in case you think that there is no connection between Eileen’s story and your own, she corrects you.

I don’t know where we went wrong in my family. We weren’t terrible people, no worse than any of you. I suppose it’s the luck of the draw, where we end up, what happens. (256)

The novel is framed as a reflection from 50 years later. Occasionally the narrator addresses the reader, as in the quotation above. But mostly she just reminds you that this is a memory.

by Larry D Moore

Ottessa Moshfegh at the 2015 Texas Book Festival, photo by Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0. via Wikicommons

In interviews Ottessa Moshfegh has made it clear that she was trying ‘to push the narrative to awkward extremes’. She was thinking about difficult questions: Can we ever escape the identity we’re born into? What does it mean to be free? Does altruism exist? As a result this novel is always surprising, always revulsion-inducing, but in the end it is hard to know who was the victim and who the wrong doer. That’s life. Happy New Year!

PS Thank you Eileen for the loan of the book.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (2016) Vintage 260pp

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Man Booker Prize 2016

The Man Booker Prize brings volumes and volumes of excellent fiction to our attention every year. Here’s the 2016 winner, shortlist and longlist. Happy reading.

‘Writing has given me a life’

And this year’s Man Booker Prize winner is …

Paul Beatty (US) The Sellout (Oneworld)

  293-sellout-cover

I warmed to this writer who was somewhat overcome as he gave his acceptance speech, and when he got going he said,

I can’t tell you guys how long a journey this has been. I don’t want to be overdramatic and say that writing saved my life, or anything like that. Writing has given me a life.

This is the first time the prize has been won by an American. The reviews and comments report on a book with much humour but also irreverence and satire. Sounds like a good one to read. And these three novels from the shortlist have been recommended by friends and I may read and review them at a later date.

293-eileen-cover

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy [to be reviewed here in November],

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, and

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien.

Man Booker Prize is worth £50,000. A total of 155 novels were submitted, judged by a panel of five judges: Amanda Foreman (Chair); Jon Day; Abdulrazak Gurnah; David Harsent and Olivia Williams.

The 2016 shortlist of six novels:

Paul Beatty (US) The Sellout (Oneworld)

Deborah Levy (UK) Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)

Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) His Bloody Project (Contraband)

Ottessa Moshfegh (US) Eileen (Jonathan Cape)

David Szalay (Canada-UK) All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)

Madeleine Thien (Canada) Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)

The Man Booker Prize 2016 longlist (Man Booker Dozen)

293-mb-longlist

293-do-not-say-cover

Happy Reading!

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