Rating: 4 Stars
This is a grim tale indeed. It’s the story of Eileen Dunlop, a severely depressed and repressed young woman that works at a boy’s prison in New England in 1964.
Her mother has passed away. Her father, an ex-cop, is a hopeless alcoholic completely reliant upon Eileen but also torments her. She has a vivacious older sister named Joanie that her father clearly prefers (with just a hint of maybe caring for her a little too much when she was younger), but wisely chooses to seldom visit the depressing, messy home.
Barely wanting to acknowledge her femininity, she dresses in her deceased mother’s dowdy clothes and tries to act as sexless as possible. Also vaguely horrified by bodily functions, she barely eats and periodically takes massive doses of laxatives to purge her body all at once.
Her job at the boy’s prison, Moorehead, isn’t much better. The other two ladies at the office treat her with disdain. She pretends indifference by always arranging her facial features in what she refers to as a ‘death mask’.
Her sole enjoyment is vaguely romantic fantasies of a prison guard named Randy. This extends to even outside work hours when she drives over and parks her car in front of his house to watch him.
She dreams of escape but at some level she understands that she never will.
One day, into this dull dreary life sweeps in a prison counselor named Rebecca. She is glamorous and dazzling and amazingly enough, takes a liking to Eileen. Eileen, stunned, really having no idea of how to make / keep a friend, let alone someone like Rebecca, just flails and desperately tries to make herself liked.
They form a bond and Eileen’s life begins to start looking up. Ultimately, Rebecca ends up putting Eileen in a situation that she could never imagine. Eileen will have to make choices that will forever change her life.
A couple of things. Even though it’s not a conventional one, it seemed to have a very noir essence to it. In this case, instead of the hapless man, it’s Eileen that allows herself to get caught into a spiderweb of a woman’s devising. As I was reading it, it reminded me of something that James M. Cain would have written.
It takes guts for an author to use Eileen as her protagonist. It’s even told in Eileen’s first person perspective. Eileen is one of the most unattractive protagonists that I’ve met. She’s unhappy, repressed, depressed, and a source of unhappiness in others. There is really not even a trace of human kindness in her. To put a character like that front and center in your novel and pretty much just daring your reader to like and/or empathize with her was a pretty bold move.
It paid off for me. I enjoyed it.