Carolyn Percy reviews Eggshells by Catriona Lally about a character who never fits in, a whimsical story described as a modern Irish literary gem.
£9.99, Liberties Press, 224pp
Have you ever felt like you don’t fit in? Meet Vivian Lawlor, heroine of Irish author Catriona Lally’s debut novel Eggshells, a woman for whom the adjective ‘idiosyncratic’ – and all its thesaurus alternatives – may have been invented. Vivian doesn’t just feel like she doesn’t fit in, she knows she doesn’t; before they died, her parents were constantly telling her that she was a changeling and trying to send her back to the world she came from. Vivian too wants to return to the world where she belongs. So she sets out to do just that, by searching for hidden code in blued-out street signs, visiting all of Dublin’s ‘thin places’ – places, in Celtic mythology, that were believed to contain portals to the Otherworld – she hopes to be spirited away to the place where everything will finally make sense. Or, failing that, she’ll advertise for a friend:
Wanted: Friend Called Penelope. Must Enjoy Talking Because I Don’t Have Much to Say. Good Sense of Humour Not Required Because My Laugh Is A Work in Progress. Must Answer to Penelope: Pennies Need Not Apply.
Unoriginal characters are a common complaint to be levied against Fiction, but in Catriona Lally has created a character of almost maddening originality. In an article for The Irish Times, Lally explained that the genesis of Vivian’s character lay in the insecurity and loneliness she felt during her long hours of fruitless job hunting after being made redundant in from her abstract writing job in the summer of 2011:
I’d never been drawn to job status… I don’t particularly identify my sense of self with a career, but I still felt unmoored by the lack of stability… so I decided to write a novel… I decided my main character, Vivian, was a woman who believed she was a changeling and was seeking a way back to her original word. Vivian is an outsider who wants to belong…
This sense of otherness is present right from the start, as Vivian’s distinctive voice – and world-view – sings out from page one, turning, for example, something as potentially mundane as a description of her recently deceased great-aunt’s collection of chairs into something quirky and humorous:
The four chairs on the landing are lined up like chairs in a waiting room. I sometimes sit on one and imagine that I’m waiting for an appointment with the doctor, or confession with the priest. Then I nod to the chair beside me and say, ‘He’s in there a long time, must have an awful lot of diseases or sins, hah.’
Plot in Eggshells could be considered coming secondary to character. Indeed, it can be argued that there isn’t much of a plot at all: Vivian walks around Dublin, writes numerous lists, searches for her elusive portal to another world, muses randomly on a variety of different subjects, makes various indirect attempts to try and connect with others – such as leaving five euro notes in the pockets of shop cardigans and inscribing bizarre messages in second hand books – and generally amuses, baffles or exasperates everyone she comes into contact with. The story ends as suddenly as it begins, and it is Vivian who is the novel’s driving force.
However, as well as a strength, this originality could also be considered something of a weakness. Because Vivian is such a strange character – like the inhabitants of Wonderland, a lot of what she says does make a kind of sense but only when viewed through the prism of a rather whimsical circular logic – and this strangeness is so consistently upheld, it can be tricky to spend large amounts of time in her head, with the potential to irritate the reader rather than charm, something even Lally herself alluded to:
Shaking off the character of Vivian after the book was finished was a relief tinged with sadness. I enjoyed writing her, but interpreting the city through her strange mind was intense. I walked Dublin with my legs and Vivian’s eyes, and sometimes it was hard to distinguish between the two.
Flaws aside however, in Eggshells Lally has managed to create something truly unique, and it will interesting to see where she goes from here.