EILEEN, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Penguin Press, 260 pp., $25.95.
Eileen Dunlop, the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh's disturbing "Eileen," reminds us in the opening line that appearances are not to be believed. "I looked like a girl you'd expect to see on a city bus," she says, "reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair."
No one is interested in Eileen. She seems ordinary to all who encounter her and repeatedly emphasizes her plainness: "I looked like a shy and gentle soul from afar," she says, someone who should be a "minor character in this saga." She doesn't appear to be someone with a disturbed mind and violent impulses.
Eileen is not unlike Barbara Covett, the narrator of Zoë Heller's brilliant 2003 novel, "Notes on a Scandal" -- lonely, asexual, obsessive. Here, too, the author explores an intense female friendship. Eileen is not overtly lesbian -- but she struggles with overwhelming feelings for a friend and the desire to both please and dominate her.
Eileen recounts her story 50 years later, but in the brutally cold winter of 1964, she is 24 years old and living with her abusive, alcoholic father in a coastal town in Massachusetts she calls X-ville. She shoplifts, pops laxatives with booze, has no friends and has never had sex. Her mother is dead; she has an older sister, Joanie, but they barely speak. She fantasizes about killing her father, even as she serves him dutifully.
She works as a secretary at a local boys' prison called Moorehead. She's infatuated with one of the guards, Randy, whom she follows around -- at least until the newly hired prison education director, Rebecca Saint John, shows up. Eileen is smitten.
Harvard-educated, beautiful and mysterious, Rebecca becomes Eileen's first real friend. She seems to offer the promise of a new life, an escape from the misery of X-ville. She's seductive, and of course that means trouble. Their intimate friendship becomes more like an affair gone horribly wrong, ending with acts of violence.
Moshfegh draws out the suspense of her narrative slowly and deliberately. Rebecca doesn't appear until nearly halfway through, and that's when things really get going. Until then, Moshfegh hits readers over the head repeatedly with foreshadowing: dark, bleak events lie ahead.
A number of lines broadcast ominous things to come, and at least a few of them could have been cut: "I left Moorehead for the last time that afternoon," Eileen says at one point, "though I couldn't have predicted that."
Yet Eileen's voice is so mesmerizing that the occasional clunkiness in plotting can be forgiven. Her mind is both warped and innocent; she has no idea what Rebecca has in store for her. "We make a good team," Rebecca tells her one night.
But Eileen is no fool. Rebecca starts to make her feel queasy with her "shifty-eyed, conspiratorial look" and confessions that seem to mask darker truths. Why is Rebecca so fixated on one of the prison boys, Lee Polk? Why did she steal his file? Eileen knows something is terribly inappropriate -- and senses that she has been "grossly miscast" in her role as Rebecca's accomplice -- but she is too infatuated to dig deeper or extricate herself.
The climax of "Eileen" is bizarre, creepy and oddly satisfying. This novel does not fit neatly into a single genre. Its protagonist is unlikable but fascinating, and ultimately sympathetic. It is a masterly psychological drama that lingers, with a disquieting effect, in the reader's mind.