Book Review: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

I finished Eileen a little while ago and mulled over what to say. Short listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016, it’s a story about a girl trapped in a dreary life, caring for her alcoholic father at night and  working as a secretary in a dead end job in a boys’ prison during the day. She dreams of breaking free and after meeting the beautiful and smart, Rebecca,  is pulled unwittingly into a crime with unexpected consequences.

Eileen is not a girl you can like nor is she a girl with too many redeeming qualities. But she is a girl, who at certain times in our own lives, reflects a tiny, teeny bit of ourselves. She has the maturity of a child in the body of a woman, full of uncertainty, yet so seemingly self-aware of every one of her flaws, and there are many. The story drags at times and much of her thoughts and inadequacies become repetitive, so much so, that even if I wanted to like her, her character allows no-one to feel pity.

I admire the author’s ability to get deep inside the head of this character. Except for the contrasting Rebecca,  grotesque glimpses of other characters are a mere sideshow to Eileen and her obsession with self. We’re left wondering about Rebecca and whether Eileen in her final act was ever truly empathetic for anyone else. I think not.

Overall, a challenging read but I’m glad I persevered. Did I like it? I can’t say I did, but then everything we read shouldn’t be about entertainment. It took me out of my middle class comfort zone that’s for sure. Well done to the author.

My First Interview

 

Along with another author, Gabrielle Gardner, I was recently interviewed by the Historical Novel Society of Australasia (HNSA) where I talk about my published books, Climbing the Coconut Tree and Out of Nowhere. I also talk about writing my current book, A Perfect Stone which is due out in 2018.

Check out the extract below reproduced from HNSA’s blog 4 August 2017.

Interview with Sylvia Karakaltsas and Gabrielle Gardner

S.C Karakaltsas lives in Melbourne and began writing in 2014 after many years in corporate life. She wrote and published her first novel called ‘Climbing the Coconut Tree’ in March 2016. Inspired by true events on an island in the Central Pacific in 1949, the novel is a tale of a naive young man who stumbles into a world of violence and murder. Her collection of short stories called ‘Out of Nowhere’ was published in May 2017. Her short story, ‘The Surprise’ has been shortlisted in the Lane Cove Literary Awards 2016. She is a member of the Phoenix Park Writers Group, Monash Writers Group; Small Press Network and Writers Victoria.

Gabrielle Gardner is a previous Varuna fellowship winner (2013) and a recipient of a 2015 Australian Society of Authors mentorship for her manuscript Sweetman’s Road.  Her manuscript The Tenant at Holders Farm was runner up in the Jim Hamilton long fiction award in 2014 with the Fellowship of Australian Writers. She has had short stories published in four Stringybark anthologies, the international flash fiction collection 1000 Words or Less : Vol 2 and was shortlisted for the Scarlet Stiletto Awards in 2016. She has had non-fiction pieces published in The Big Issue and The Victorian Writer. She is currently finishing an associate degree in Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT. She blogs at Gabrielle Gardner  “ Reading, Writing & a Few Dog Stories”.

What is the inspiration for your current book?

Sylvia: I watched a documentary early last year, about 38000 children who were forcibly evacuated, mostly on foot, from Northern Greece during the Greek Civil War. There were many who never saw their families again. I was already playing around with a story of two children and decided to incorporate the Greek Civil War into my setting. I then discovered my husband’s aunt had been one of those children and my research and obsession began.

Gabrielle: I was inspired to write this story after several years volunteering at a nursing home every Thursday. There, part of my brief was to have conversations with the elderly residents (mainly women) and listen to their stories of the past. I was hugely impressed (and saddened and moved) by their resilience in the face—often—of poverty, isolation, lack of love and opportunity. Their unfailing attitude was ‘you just had to get on with it’. Many were rural women who lived without even the company of other women. So often they longed for more – love, fulfilment, adventure, education, even the opportunity to do paid work – and having none of these, they ‘just got on with it.’ I wanted to create a fictional composite of these women so that they might be, in some small way, acknowledged, remembered and understood. Bridie Bowden is that woman.

Is there a particular theme you are exploring in this book?

Sylvia: There are a couple of themes. Like my first book, Climbing the Coconut Tree, the rise and spread of communism in the aftermath of the second World War plays a big part. Secondly, A Perfect Stone is essentially a story of child refugees which when you think about, is as relevant a story today, as it was then. Thirdly, I explore the issues of race segregation, like the Macedonians who in Northern Greece are still remain isolated from their culture and heritage now.

Gabrielle: I wanted to explore the circumstances of isolated, disadvantaged rural women of the early 20th century. I know not all women in this demographic were so disadvantaged but many were and their stories are, I believe, under-represented in Australian fiction.

Which period of history particularly interests you? Why?

Sylvia: My first novel was set in the Pacific in 1948 and A Perfect Stone is set in the same year. Although quite unintentionally, I find myself drawn to the aftermath of World War 2 which produced huge change and unintentional consequences still felt today.

Gabrielle: Oh, many! But the first half of the 20th century, especially in Australia, is incredibly rich with tales worth telling. I dread them being forgotten.

What resources do you use to research your book?

Sylvia: Like everyone, the internet, YouTube, articles, books, but I also like to interview people who experienced that time. I’ve also been to Northern Greece which helps me to visualise the landscape.

Gabrielle: I suppose the usual – Trove, Google and my father’s books, including an original edition C.E.W. Bean, but mainly the oral stories of the women in the nursing home.

What is more important to you: historical authenticity or accuracy?

Sylvia: I think both are important if they add to the story. To dump facts and figures for the sake of it while nice for some readers, may not be useful for the story. Authenticity brings about a flavour for the time and place but can be open to interpretation. Although I wonder about accuracy. In my first book, I interviewed people who were very definitive in their recollections about what happened. Yet when I looked at the facts, their point of view while accurate for them and their way of life, was very different from others of a different culture, race or class. History can often be a person’s interpretation of events from their point of view. Omission is just as bad as recording inaccurately. When researching for Climbing the Coconut Tree, for example I found data around the size of the population on Ocean Island that was inaccurate.

Gabrielle: My mother was very cavalier about accuracy. One of her life mottos was ‘a man on a galloping horse won’t notice’, and another ‘oh, just chuck it in and see if it floats’. So precision has never been my strongpoint. But I do value and aim for authenticity.

Which character in your current book is your favourite? Why?

Sylvia: I love my main characters, Jim as an old man of 80 and his 10-year-old self. The old man is a curmudgeon given to eccentricity and reminds me a lot of my own father. He’s a fun character to write as a relief to his serious and naïve 10-year-old self, Dimitri.  They both move me and I’m in love with their vulnerability as much as their strengths and flaws.

Gabrielle: Well, they’re all my treasures now but I do love Bridie’s husband, Jack. My Beta readers have all loved Jack. (One says she wept for him.) My ASA mentor insisted I ‘fill out’ Jack a lot more. While Bridie didn’t gain much pleasure from living with Jack he too was a man of his time – hard working, reliable, honest to a fault, loyal to friends but at the same time—and through no fault of his own—inhibited and emotionally unavailable. He might have loved in his own way but his inner world was securely locked away from everyone else, except perhaps his mates when they got together to spin a yarn.

Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’? How long does it generally take you to write a book?

Sylvia: I’ve only been writing for three years and started off by being a pantser with my first novel. This carried on with A Perfect Stone – then I got stuck. So that’s when I decided to plot out the story – it helped me sort out the end. With my first book, Climbing the Coconut Tree, I had no idea what I was doing. It took me two years to research, write and publish which I guess is really not that long. I began A Perfect Stone 12 months ago so expect to have it out sometime next year. It’s taken a bit longer because I’ve been writing contemporary short stories and published a collection in May 2017 called “Out of Nowhere.”

Gabrielle: No doubt I’m a panster. I’ve tried from time to time to plan a plot but it just paralyses me. Consequently I have several manuscripts of about 30,000 words going nowhere because I’ve painted myself into a corner and couldn’t get out. C’est la vie! I began Sweetmans Road in 2012 but it’s had an enormous amount of input – Varuna, ASA mentorship, RMIT Professional Writing course.

I have 2 other completed full manuscripts that I wrote fairly quickly – a year or so but they need work still.

Which authors have influenced you?

Sylvia: Nicole Hayes, a YA writer, mentors my writing. As for other authors, I love Hannah Kent, Emily Bitto, Sonya Hartnett, Brooke Davis, Richard Flanagan, Anthony Doerr and Geraldine Brooks to name a few who have influenced and inspired my writing.

Gabrielle: Generally – Alice Munro, Penelope Lively, Ann Patchett, Tim Winton for his ability to write about place, Sonya Hartnett – too many to list – but for this manuscript specifically I owe a lot to Marion Halligan’s Lovers Knots and Matthew Condon’s The Trout Opera for the way they both move around in time, voice, and place while keeping the story flowing and engaging.

What advice would you give an aspiring author?

Sylvia: Setting a goal to write is great. Sitting down and writing without the baggage of your own judgment is even better.

Gabrielle: Not sure I’m in a position to give advice, given that this book is just about to start looking for a home! However – write! – just do it! Redraft over and over, the first draft is never as good as it can be, nor the second, nor the third. Give it to other writers to read and ask them to be honest, especially about plot. Best of all, read your work out aloud to yourself, hear how it sounds and adjust accordingly.

Tell us about your next book or work in progress.

Sylvia: Unpacking a box belonging to his late wife, eighty-year-old Jim Philips discovers her diary and a small stone which triggers an avalanche of secrets and memories he’s hidden, not just from his bossy middle-aged daughter, but from himself. The memory of a treacherous march of survival through the mountains of Northern Greece to escape the Greek Civil War causes him to confront his heritage which he’d turned his back on after arriving in Australia. His daughter has no idea about her father past until he has a stroke and reverts to his native tongue.

Gabrielle: I’m very excited about my next attempt at the G.A.N. I’ve always wanted to write a novel for adults but with a child as one of the protagonists. Think Sonya Harnett’s Thursday’s Child. This one is called Down the Green Road, about a single father, a mother mysteriously missing and their nine-year old daughter. I’m 20,000 words in, so not past the paint-yourself-into-a-corner zone yet!

Climbing the Coconut Tree by S. C Karakaltsas

Inspired by true events, this is a story about eighteen-year-old Bluey Guthrie who, in 1948 leaves his family to take the job of a lifetime on a remote island in the Central Pacific. Bill and Isobel, seasoned ex-pats help Bluey fit in to a privileged world of parties, dances and sport.  

However, the underbelly of island life soon draws him in. Bluey struggles to understand the horrors left behind after the Japanese occupation, the rising fear of communism, and the appalling conditions of the Native and Chinese workers. All this is overseen by the white Colonial power brutalising the land for Phosphate: the new gold. 

Isobel has her own demons and watches as Bill battles to keep growing unrest at bay. Drinking and gambling are rife. As racial tensions spill over causing a trail of violence, bloodshed and murder, Bluey is forced to face the most difficult choices of his life.

S.C. and Gabrielle are appearing in our Meet the Author satellite event on 20 August at the Mail Exchange Hotel, 688 Bourke St, Melbourne from 2.30-4.30 pm discussing Historical Romance and War fiction with Alison Stuart and Elise McCune. More information and tickets are available from the HNSA website. http://hnsa.org.au/conference/satellite/

HNSA 2017 Conference

The HNSA 2017 Melbourne Conference is being held on 8-10 September 2017 at Swinburne University. This celebration of the historical fiction genre will showcase over 60 speakers discussing inspiration, writing craft, research, publishing pathways and personal histories in our weekend programme. Among the many acclaimed historical novelists participating are Kerry Greenwood, Kate Forsyth, Deborah Challinor, Libby Hathorn, Lucy Treloar, Sophie Masson, Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott and Arnold Zable. The HNSA’s speakers’ list is available on the HNSA website.

In addition to the two stream weekend programme, there will be ten craft based super sessions and two research masterclasses.You won’t want to miss our interactive sessions on armour and historical costumes either! Purchase a ticket and you will be entered in the draw to win a $100 Dymocks Gift Card.

Manuscript assessments will be conducted by industry experts, Alison Arnold and Irina Dunn. Our free extended academic programme is open for general admission but bookings are essential.

Our First Pages Pitch Contest offers an opportunity for submissions to be read aloud to a panel of publishers. And we are delighted to announce the introduction of our inaugural HNSA Short Story Contest with a $500 prize!

Visit our website to purchase your tickets now!

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What does your book pile say about you?

pics-of-books
I love to read.

Last year, I read some terrific books including – The Natural Way of Things; All the Light We Cannot See; People of the Book; One True Thing; A Man called Ove; Of a Boy; When There’s Nowhere Else to Run; The Marriage of Opposites; Donna Quixote; La Rose; Where My Heart Used to Beat; View from A Barred Window to name just a handful.

I’ve listed twelve titles randomly and realise that six of them are historical fiction. My list consists of seven Australian authors, six of whom are women. Interestingly, of my list of twelve, nine are by women. Many have won awards and two are self-published.

I do like to read historical fiction.  In fact, I like it so much that I wrote and published my own historical fiction. Now I’m in the middle of writing a second novel set in Northern Greece during the Greek Civil War. I confess I’ve only just recently realised this about myself. I always thought I read widely – perhaps not widely enough across genres. There’s three written with the Second World War as a backdrop;  five set in Australia; one in the US; one in Europe; one in Sweden and one in the Virgin Islands.

Perhaps I like historical fiction because I like history? I’m not a history buff but I do like to learn about historical events through story. I like being transported back in time and place. I guess that’s what draws me. That, and of course, a well written book which is probably written by a woman set in Australia. Is that called unconscious bias? Too bad if it is.

I enjoyed each book in my list of twelve but if I had to name a favourite for last year, it would have to be All the Light We Cannot See – that’s one I’ll read again and again.

As for what I’m reading currently? You guessed it – another historical fiction called Beauty is a Wound set in Indonesia but it is written by a man.

What does your book pile reveal about you ?