Ms. Hen decided to read this because she learned about it a while ago, and was curious about it. She likes to read about disturbed young women; this is one of her favorite subjects in literature, to read as well as to write. EILEEN is about such a character.
Eileen Dunlop works in a boys’ prison, and takes care of her alcoholic father. Going between the two places she despises everything about herself and her life. She is twenty-four and the year is 1964. She tells the story looking back at her life from the present day; since this is the narrative, Ms. Hen knew she survived in the end.
Eileen shoplifts, and fantasizes and stalks the handsome, young prison guard Randy. She supplies her father with liquor, and imbibes herself at times with him. She rarely showers and does not eat healthy food. She is an unlikeable, but pitiful woman. Ms. Hen likes her, however. She likes her because she understands her and she knows she is realistic. Ms. Hen read some reviews of this book, and people wrote that Eileen is a despicable character, which is unusual for a female protagonist. It’s typically men who are portrayed as monsters, but Ms. Hen is glad that now there is equal opportunity and women can be depicted as truly bad characters in fiction as well.
It’s not that Eileen wants to be bad. It’s her life circumstances that make her that way. Her mother died young, and her sister is a loose, unkind woman, and Eileen is stuck with her father who treats her like garbage. So it’s no wonder Eileen acts like a pariah, and dreams of escaping her situation.
Things change for Eileen when she meets Rebecca, the new teacher at the prison. Rebecca appears to be everything Eileen is not: beautiful, educated, poised, charming. Eileen is fascinated with Rebecca, but in the end, she becomes Eileen’s downfall. They end up accomplices in a crime, and since the story is told from Eileen’s older point of view, the reader already knows something horrific will happen because the narrator reveals it ahead of time.
This novel reminds Ms. Hen of two different books which take place in time periods surrounding this: GIRL, INTERRUPTED, in the late Sixties and THE BELL JAR, in the Fifties. This novel seems to be caught in the middle of those two worlds, the venue of lost girls who cannot seem to find their way out of the dark. GIRL, INTERRUPTED is a memoir, and THE BELL JAR is based on Sylvia Plath’s real life, but even though EILEEN is not based on anyone’s life, it seems as if it is drawn from these two books. The difference is that Eileen does not end up in a psychiatric hospital, she commits a crime and runs away, but the feeling and the emotions are the same. The world is a fucked up place, and there’s nothing we can do about it, is the lesson Ms. Hen gleaned from all three books. But Eileen ends up happy in her life when she’s older, she says in the book. This novel might offer some hope to young women who think there is no way out.
Eileen’s family does not eat that much, but there are a couple of mentions of chickens, which pleased Ms. Hen. She talks about Christmas, “Back in X-ville, Dunlop dinners had been at best dry chicken, mashed potatoes from a box, canned beans, limp bacon. Christmas was a little different. A store bought sponge cake was all I remember eating from year to year. The Dunlops were never big eaters.” And also, Eileen talks about taking care of her mother, “ 'I should be dead already,’ she insisted. I dutifully boiled the chicken soup on the stove, day in, day out and brought her the clear broth in a green salad bowl big enough to catch the spills…”
Ms. Hen thinks this book is disturbing, but she loved it. She likes reading something that is unusual. This book is not perfect, but it’s dark enough to mirror the bleakness and reality of life.