Eileen is a repulsive, yet oddly empathetic, narrator, reminiscent in parts of Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita. Her vulgar descriptions of her bowel movements (she is addicted to laxatives) giver her some sort of thrill “torrential, oceanic … Those were the good times.” and the squalor in which she lives “Later, in certain particularly unkempt subway stations or public restrooms, I’d be reminded of that old kitchen and gag” are crude but they offer an insight into the ugliness of the raw human condition.
Set in a New England town, X-ville, in the mid-winter offers a bleak, isolated backdrop evocative of an Edward Hopper painting. Eileen lives with her drunken father and although he is not given anywhere near as much psychological study as Eileen, their estranged relationship is a thread throughout the book. Eileen’s father, a retired police officer, helped her get her job – a secretary at a juvenile correction facility for boys.
Eileen is just as trapped as the imprisoned boys – her dull routine is made exciting only by her romantic, sexual fantasy with Randy, a prison guard whom she has hardly spoken to before. She is a stalker. She spends weekends parked outside Randy’s house “I held tight to the magical notion that as long as I kept close tabs on him, he wouldn’t fall in love with anybody else”. However, she is a pitiful character – her crush is like that of a teenage girl. And indeed that is how she is often presented – she even has minor crushes on the adolescent boys in the detention centre.
The novel unravels over the course of a week in 1964 – the week leading up to Christmas. After the weekend, Rebecca Saint John arrives as the prison’s director of education and although envious, Eileen is determined on impressing Rebecca.
The retrospective narration keeps reminding us that Eileen will leave X-ville, forced to leave X-ville after she has committed a crime. Yet there is no hint whatsoever as to what the crime is. Eileen enjoys the thrill of stealing, and even considers killing her father – and it is obvious that she has a killer’s mentality. However, when the crime unravels in the last fifty pages it is somewhat unexpected, albeit a thrilling climax and dénouement.
Eileen has been described as a psychological thriller. The character study of Eileen is remarkable and almost thrilling in itself, however, the element that describes this novel as a ‘thriller’ is put off, so much so that one could almost forget that it is classed as a thriller. Nevertheless, it is an original masterpiece which has the power to unsettle.