Looking back at the here and now – Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh is the story of a twenty something woman’s escape from New England in 1964. She initially represents a stark contrast to the stereotype of the swinging, and sometimes turbulent sixties, struggling with her alcoholic father, life in small town America and her work at the city’s prison for young offenders.

EileenOne of the things that intrigued me most about the book was the telling of the story and the way that it moves between different times within the narration.   The first chapter, entitled 1964, provides an introduction to Eileen.  The opening lines both place Eileen front and centre of the story, but suggest that she is in the background of the lives around her.

“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 looked like nothing special.”

We learn shortly afterward that she is narrating the story from a long time after the events it describes,

“And back then – this was fifty years ago – I was a prude.”

This also allows us to see that there will be changes in Eileen’s life, that she will move on from the life

The subsequent chapters cover a period of seven days, and as Eileen indicates

“My last days as that angry little Eileen took place in late December, in the brutal cold town where I was born and raised.”

As the story progresses through the seven days up to Christmas Day Eileen describes her work at the prison and the people she works with, including her fantasies about one of the guards.  She also sets her relationship with her father, a former policeman who was retired out of service because of his drunkenness, and the impact that the death of her mother had on them.    It is the arrival of Rebecca St John, who’s name hints at unobtainable beauty as well as re-birth and revelation, which provides the catalyst for Eileen to move on.

The story operates in three “timezones”.  The first is that the story is being narrated from 2014, with clear indications that Eileen will move on from her humdrum life in the anonymous town, which she calls X-ville, into more eventful experiences

“If I’d known just how dangerous a place I was escaping to, I may never have left”

Or through her references future husbands, despite the doubts that Eileen has in her own looks and capacity to form relationships

The second space for time appears as Eileen looks back to times before the week in question.  We gain an understanding of her history, the events that up to this week have shaped her and the story.

“Before I go on describing the events of that Saturday, I should mention the gun again.  When I was growing up, my father would sit at the kitchen table after dinner and clean it, explain all of its mechanics and the necessity of its upkeep.”

Or in relation to Eileen and her mother

“Other times though, the basement bore the grim tinge of memories of my mother and how much time she spent down there – doing what for so long? I still don’t know.  Coming up with a basket of clean clothes or linens on her hip, sniffling, grunting, she would tell me to get going, clean my room, brush my hair, read a book, leave her alone.”

Moshfegh sets out to link Eileen’s experiences to her mother’s life and death, particularly through her wearing of her mother’s clothes, which brings the past in to the present (1964).

The third timezone in which the story is told is the present, Christmas 1964, although obviously narrated from 2014.

The reader’s knowledge that Eileen will move on from X-Ville, but not the circumstances which bring it about allows the tension and intrigue to successfully build up and keep you engaged in the story.  This is further strengthened by understanding Eileen’s history and background, and it is the layering of time within the story that I believe allows this to happen.

I’m sure that this technique, of multiples times within a single narration, appears in various forms within lots of books, and it rang bells as I read Eileen.   What I think Moshfegh manages to do well is to build up the character of Eileen, to create a strong degree of sympathy for her and her situation where, whilst knowing that her experience of X-ville ends at a specific point in the story, and knowing this throughout the story does not diminish its potency.


Going backwards to go forwards

If every reading is a mis-reading, then to re-read a book allows you the opportunity to mis-read it in new ways or to discover how you mis-read it the firMay re readsst time.

Over the past month I re-read four books, and of the first readings the only one which I didn’t really enjoy was Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk.   The Vegetarian was one of my books of last year, and How To Be Both was my favourite book of 2015.   I had read both Wise Children and Hot Milk in April.

The first question is, what stayed the same?  I continued to find Wise Children brilliantly written, even when I new the jokes were coming.  Han Kang’s The Vegetarian still haunts me and, for me, the key theme of agency and free will still felt relevant.  Perhaps because it had been some time since I’d read it first there were inevitably elements that I didn’t recall, which were re-freshened on the second reading.

The next questions is what got better? Re-reading Hot Milk developed the themes and patterns which I knew were there at the first reading, but being able to bring my recent memory of the end of book to parts at the beginning helped me to better appreciate it.

That leaves only How To Be Both.  In 2015 I loved this book, the mystery and the subsequent discovery.   When I finished it the first time I almost immediately re-read it to better understand what it was that had happened and how I should have seen the story grow.   However, for this re-reading it felt flat, that the motions and movements were there, but the mystery had disappeared.  There were points that I remembered the buzz of the first reading, and a sense of excitement and adventure would wash over me, but as I got further into they disappeared.

This seems unusual. The book was acclaimed on it’s publication and was considered for, and won, many awards so it must be able to withstand the scrutiny of being re-read, but for me, on this occasion it didn’t work.  Because this fall feels so great I may consider re-reading it for a third time to not better grasp the story or the themes, but to try to understand my experience as a reader.

To re-read these books has been an interesting experience as a reader.  The two more recently read books were either re-assured or enhanced by the second reading.  One of the others remained high in my opinion and one seems to have dropped.  As I said before I think there is much to be said for re-reading books, re-digesting them.  The original suggestion that each reading is a mis-reading required you to look at the context and background to other literature which came before the work being looked at, so that you might better grapple with it.   For me, the re-reading will help better understand the context of other books that I will read, will add depth to their surroundings, perhaps to pull at the threads that tie them together and see where that leads.

I’The Snow Ballm a regular follower of the Backlisted Podcast which reviews old books the hosts and their guests think should be re-read.  With a well stocked Oxfam in Reading I was lucky to get hold of The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy, which tells of the events at a costume party on New Years Eve, and the attraction between various characters.

As Wise Children was funny on almost every page, The Snow Ball is charged with eroticism throughout and tantalising to read.



A gift like love is never free: Relationships in Hot Milk

 “I had broken the rules of exchange.  She had given and I had taken, but I had not reciprocated.

A gift like love is never free”

Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk explores the relationship between a woman, Sofia Papastergiadis, and her mother Rose whilst they attend the Gomez Clinic in Almaria in Spain to seek a cure for Rose’s partial paralysis.  The novel also pulls in Sofia’s relationship with her father who abandoned them many years before.

Hot Milk Jacket

Sofia’s relationships with her each of her parents differs.  For her mother, there is a key focus on the phyiscal, and for her father there is a greater economic or financial aspect.

Near the beginning Sofia says that she is in debt to her mother

“…I am my mother’s burden.  She is my creditor and I pay her with my legs.  They are always running around for her”

Throughout the book, Rose’s medical condition exerts its influence on the relationship,

“She is my mother. Her legs are my legs.  Her pains are my pains.”

Rose also sees the relationship in physical terms, sometimes quite barbarically,

“I’m enjoying this massage more.  You [Sofia] have good hands.  If only you could cut your hands off and leave them with me while you go to the beach all day.”

As Sofia is the primary narrator of the novel, the book centres on the support she provides to Rose, and  without a clear medical or physical reason for her condition Levy raises the emotional aspect.

“You will notice how in anger, or perhaps with a sense of grievance she is walking”

Towards the end of the book, as their relationship develops and perhaps as the balance of power between the two shifts from Rose to Sofia , and this is reflected in how the imagery moves from mother to daughter,

“My love for her is like an axe. She has grabbed it from me and is threatening to chop off her feet.”

Finally, as Sofia becomes even further distanced from her mother Levy draws attention to a part of everyone’s body which physically linked us to our mothers.

“I waded into the sea up to my belly button, which is the oldest human scar…”

For Sofia the physical aspect is the cost that she must pay to have that relationship with her mother, it represents the obligation that their mutual love requires.

Alternatively, Sofia views her relationship with her father, Christos, in more economic terms,

“I think he understands that I am his confused and shabby creditor.”

She also sees her fathers relationship with Evangeline, her half-sister, through an financial spectrum

“It would be easier for him to have me crash out of his life altogether, yet for some reason he wants me to sign off Alexandra. She is his most valuable collateral.”

The use of these financial terms suggests accountancy, and the ways that Christos should be brought to account for his abandonment of Sofia and Rose.  That her fathers’ new wife, Alexandra, is a redundant economist reinforces this view.

Whilst talking to Alexandra, Sofia suggests that her father has not treated her as would be expected,

 My father only does things that are to his advantage, ‘ I reply 

She stares at me as though I am crazy. And then she laughs. ‘Why would he do things that are not to his advantage?’

This comes as a shock to Sofia, who is more accustomed the mutual obligations she has with her mother.   The relationship between Sofia and her father is never resolved satisfactorily, and ultimately she gets nothing back from her father as she heads back to Spain.

“Is the sting of being a creditor the sort of power that makes me feel happy? Are creditors happier than debtors?”

The books epigraph is a quote from Helene Cixous’ essay ‘The Laugh of The Medusa’

“It’s up to you to break the old circuits”

This, right from the start, is the message for Sofia.  She price demanded by her parents is too great for her, both physically with Rose and economically with Christos but neither is a price that she can pay.

Hot Milk is Deborah Levy’s sixth novel, and was published in 2016 and subsequently shortlisted for the Booker Prize later that year.

I chose it for the re-reading because from the first instance it was possible to see that there are many layers to the story.  It is narrated in a fairly flat style, without too much flamboyance, but the repetition of themes and motifs echo throughout, and there is much to be gained from the second reading, and probably the third, if that should happen.

When re-reading: Hope for the best, expect the worst


Wise Children was Angela Carter’s last book,  published the year before her death in 1992, and is the first of my “re-reading women” books.  Having only read it for the first time last month, I wondered whether having been through the journey would be as exhilarating the second time, particularly so soon afterwards.

It is the story of Dora Chance and her twin sister Nora, the illegitimate children of a famous Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard, and their relationship with their father, his twin brother, Perry Hazard, and other members of the showbiz family.  It tells the life history of the Chance sisters, and leading up to their father’s 100th birthday, and their 75th birthdays.

There are three things that I enjoyed most about the book.  At the top is the first person narration, both for the language used by Dora, but also the pace,

“Melchior slept here.  This attic, the cheapest room in the house, cheaper still because never paid.  I picture him in front of a square of mirror, trying on that shabby crown, emoting, listening to the sycamores at the end of the garden thrashing about in the wind and pretending the sound they made was applause.  Desperate, ravenous, on the make, tramping round the agents day after day after day, back to the boiled cabbage at Bard Road and the hard, narrow bed.”

This is enhanced by Dora’s occasional, perhaps deliberate, forgetfulness,

“At my age, memory becomes exquisitely selective.”

This conversational style relaxes the reader, lowers their guard, but does not mask the many themes which elevate the story beyond a simple recollection. For example, the high culture of the Hazards, “Shakespeare, to whom our family owed so much”,  can often be compared to the low culture of the Chance sisters

“…we girls are illegitimate in every way – not only born out of wedlock, but we went on the [music] halls, didn’t we!”

Grandma Chance’s constant refrain is “Hope for the best, expect the worst” and this approach helps Dora and Nora to respond more effectively to the challenges they face. This can be contrasted with the Hazard’s reply to difficulties.  For example the fire at the Christmas party, when although his stately home has burnt to the ground, Melchior Hazard is more upset by the loss of a family heirloom, a cardboard crown.

“I’d better believe that, what he said about children. I was amazed to see him so much moved, and on account of what? A flimsy bit of make-believe. A nothing. 

‘What shall I do without my crown? Othello’s occupation gone!’ 

He began to cry.”

Shakespeare appears frequently in Wise Children, with 26 plays either mentioned directly, quoted or alluded to.  At one stage Melchior Hazard is producing a West End Revue and at various points in the book it is called “What? You Will?”, “What! You Will?”, “What! You Will!” or just plain “What You Will!”,  both teasing on the name William as well as using the subtitle for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which in turn also features twins.

Another theme is the relationship between parents and children, and what makes a family.   Melchior’s supposedly legitimate children, Imogen and Saskia,  swindle their mother out of her home.

“The precious, unique Hazard blood that blinds parents to their children and turns daughter against mother!”

In comparison,  Grandma Chance adopts Nora and Dora, as well as others, with an easy heart,

‘Family,’ I say. Grandma invented this family. She put it together out of whatever came to hand – a stray pair of orphaned babes, a ragamuffin in a flat cap.

Their house in Bard Road is full of characters who appear for all sorts of reasons.  When “Our Cyn” knocks on the door after being sent there by Perry

‘He said you’d give us a job,’ she said.  ‘Help look after the kids or something. He said you’d give us a roof.’
‘I wasn’t planning on running a hostel for fallen women,’ said Grandma in a huff.  It was pissing down with rain, Our Cyn was soaked.
‘I haven’t fallen yet,’ said Our Cyn.  ‘But I might.’

For me, the most impressive part of the book is that it combines all these things with so much humour, I laughed on almost every page.  Occasionally the jokes are longer in the telling; the Hollywood production of The Dream, and the Chance sisters transportation of soil from Stratford Upon Avon intended to baptise the production with the spirit of Shakespeare, and it’s replacement with soil from the replica Stratford built in Hollywood, which works in so many ways.

In other parts Carter simply produced some excellent one liners, with my favourite being,

She looked a million dollars, I must admit, even if in well-used notes

When I read Wise Children the first time I was blown away by all these things. On the second reading they were still there, even the jokes, knowing they were coming, didn’t diminish the book, and as with any good book more layers were revealed, adding to to the pleasure.

This was my second reading but I know I’ll be back for the third and perhaps fourth in years to come.

To ReRead Women

After hauling myself through Voss in March (with my efforts rewarded), my self-set challenge for April was to read only books written by women.

As half the books on the bookclub list are Bailey’s Prize Nominees this should not be a particularly difficult challenge, but when I totted up the books I’d read last year a little over half were written by women, and that included periods of deliberately reading books by women, so something must have been going astray.

In the end I read seven books written by women in April:

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
  • Wise Children by Angela Carter
  • Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
  • Transit by Rachel Cusk
  • The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild
  • Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner

I enjoyed them all to varying degrees, and at times having read one informed and enhanced the enjoyment of others.   However, the large flaw in my reading is that it can become a ticklist process, a race to quantity rather than quality, to read as many as possible in as short a space of time. I mean the quality of my reading, not the quality of the author’s writing.

Hot Milk was this months book-club book, and with about a dozen people around the table the discussion was varied, but always interesting.  People inevitably recall parts that others have forgotten, and give greater weight to some sections, they see connections that others don’t, or go off on tangents about other books, and as with other books I walked away with renewed insight.

And that is what happens almost all the time, I walk away, put the book on the shelf and think that at some point in the future I will re-read it.

Therefore, my goal for May is to re-read books some of the books by women that I’ve read over the past two years.

Reread women

Three of them were read in April, and I’m hoping that as I re-read them still fresh in my memory new layers will be added to them.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang was one of my favourite books of 2016 and Ali Smith’s How To Be Both was third on my list of 2015 books, and although they are not so easily recollected it will be interesting to see what comes back to me and what doesn’t.


In the past 10 years I have read very few books more than once, but I re-read Rachel Cusk’s Outlines twice last year to assure myself that it was the best book I’d read all year.

The other three books I’ve read more than once in the past few years are biggies, Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Proust’s “The Way By Swann’s” and “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower”.  All of which I’d re-read if it didn’t mean sacrificing other great books.


I have deliberately talked about these books as books written by women, and not “women’s books” for obvious reasons.

I’m also very conscious that four of these books are by white women.  There are 31 days in May, and if I get through these I may go back to Beloved by Toni Morrison, which I found hard going last year, but I recognise that I would benefit from re-reading.



Voss by Patrick White

Patrick White was the first Australian to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and is one of the country’s leading novelists of the 20th Century.   Voss was his fifth novel and was originally published in 1957.


It tells the story of two characters;  Johann Ulrich Voss is a German who sets out with a party of men to cross the Australian Continent.  Laura Trevelyan is an orphan living with her aunt and uncle, Edmund Bonner, who is one of the businessmen sponsoring Voss’ trek across Australia.  The story has many themes including isolation and journey’s into the unknown.

The story is set in the 1840’s when Australia was still being colonised and was largely unexplored by westerners.  For me, one of the themes of the novel is the link between the land and the people on it, for both aborigines and settlers, and how those bonds grow over time and are visible.

‘Yes,’ answered Voss, without hesitation. ‘I will cross the continent from one end to the other. I have every intention to know it with my heart. Why I am pursued by this necessity, it is no more possible for me to tell than it is for you, who have made my acquaintance only before yesterday.’

That Voss is not British reinforces the feeling that the land can be taken, that its boundaries or borders have not yet been developed, an essential aspect of colonisation.

Whilst Voss’ journey is not successful, and ultimately most of his party die, the reader is aware that Australia was ultimately conquered and explored but the price of that conquest was high.  Along side this is the history of Australia as a penal colony, with a number of characters being emancipated convicts.  When Laura’s servant Rose Portion is buried following the birth of her daughter, White writes:

Rather an isolated part of the cemetery had been chosen for the grave of Rose Portion, the emancipist servant, but, of course, as the conciliatory Mr Plumpton pointed out, the whole ground would in time be opened up.

The country, as well as the cemetery will be opened up by the British, and death will part of the landscape.

But the land is already occupied and death is inevitably already part of the landscape:

Once Voss and Jackie had discovered in some trees a platform of leafy saplings fastened together with strips of bark. They were still examining it when Judd and Harry caught them up. ‘These dead men,’ the native boy explained, and it was gathered that his people laid their dead upon such platforms, and would leave them there for the spirits to depart.

Perhaps by aligning death and suffering with the bond for a country White is hinting at one of the challenges in Australia’s more recent history, how to respond to the rights of indigenous people whilst recognising that after almost 250 years presence the strength of others attachment to the land.

“Well, you see, if you live and suffer long enough in a place, you do not leave it altogether. Your spirit is still there.”

“Finally, I believe I have begun to understand this great country, which we have been presumptuous enough to call ours, and with which I shall be content to grow since the day we buried Rose. For part of me has now gone into it.”

 Voss is not an easy read. For me there was much confusion about the events within the middle part, and even once I had gotten through them I was unclear about exactly what had happened, but perhaps that was the intention.   However, once I had reached the end I found myself going back to the middle section to re-discover what had been written and what had been said.


What I Will Remember

The original of this post was published on my Facebook feed a few days after my grandmother had died. My desire to say something quickly about how I was feeling meant that I captured some parts of what I wanted to say, but not all.


My Grandma, Kathleen Fenton, died last week, so I have been thinking of her and my Granddad, John Fenton, who passed away some years ago, and what I remember of them. 

I remember visiting them as a child, the landmarks that would indicate that we were getting closer, the church spires, the Tescos where she worked, the sweep through the Kenyon Estate, and the right turn onto Carrfield Avenue, ending by the triangles of grass outside their house.

If we arrived on a Friday evening there might be a casserole cooking, nothing complex, an instruction perhaps given earlier in the day to put the oven on in good time or to make sure the carrots were peeled. Not always followed. 

Setting the table for tea would mean pushing the living room furniture to the sides so the drop leaf table could be stretched as far as possible. Moving empty mugs, save for tea leaves at the bottom, and taking ashtrays off the arms of chairs. Picking up Embassy Cigarette cards.

Many people meant many chairs, with hoovers and ironing boards piled in the hall so extra seats could be dug out from the cupboard under the stairs, past coats and jackets.

I remember the extra plate being delivered to an elderly neighbour.

And a Friday always meant rice pudding.

I remember the constant talking, of catching up, the excited arrival of others, maybe a long travelled uncle or a cousin, and the kettle being almost constantly on the boil.

The discussions about who was sleeping where, and which brothers and uncles I’d be sharing a room with, or whether we’d be sleeping in the parlour.

I remember, sometimes, seeking permission to search the cupboards for toys, a yellow digger with caterpillar tracks, or something a cousin had left behind.

In the evenings I remember the gentle tapping of Grandma’s knitting needles and Grandad offering more tea and hot buttered toast for supper.

“Do you take sugar Matthew?

I remember the family photos, snapshots of trips to Spain, portraits from graduations or the broad smiles of uniformed school children. I remember the picture of Grandad as an infant with his family around him. I remember the horse brasses and the books on the shelves.

I remember Grandad setting off for work before anyone else had arisen, breakfast with Grandma in the kitchen, seeing which cereal was in the cupboard, followed by toast and lime marmalade. I remember Gay Bryne on the radio.

These are a few of the happy memories I have. But they are not memories of events or occasions. A family this large has its share of events and celebrations; birthdays, weddings, wedding anniversaries, Christmas’, the birth of my brother. Marked in calendars, planned and recalled.

What I will remember is the comforting hubbub of family, the embrace of routines and experiences.  This does not happen by accident nor by direct design. It happens through love, although I did not know this as a child.

I remember, as a child, having a nightmare, of unseen monsters hunting me down. And I remember that it was behind a settee at Grandma and Grandad’s that I, in my dream, sought refuge.