Anthony Glavin on Eggshells by Caitriona Lally: a novel that keeps its promises

Give yourself a treat with the the patent artistry of this wise, highly crafted and patently heartfelt novel, a paean to Dublin and a work filled with pleasure, pathos and pain

“I must have cycled over Binn’s Bridge in Drumcondra  500 times without having spotted Brendan Behan’s statue below on a bench beside the Royal Canal with a sculpted pigeon pal. However, after encountering it through Vivian’s eyes, I found myself cycling down from the bridge a few weeks later for a closer look.” Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

“I must have cycled over Binn’s Bridge in Drumcondra 500 times without having spotted Brendan Behan’s statue below on a bench beside the Royal Canal with a sculpted pigeon pal. However, after encountering it through Vivian’s eyes, I found myself cycling down from the bridge a few weeks later for a closer look.” Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

I’ll confess it was with fingers crossed that I opened Caitriona Lally’s beguiling debut novel, Eggshells, of which I had previously seen the first 10,000 words as one of three judges for the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair in 2014, where it proved one of a dozen winners. However, I didn’t have to keep fingers crossed for long, as the novel proceeded to keep every promise made in its opening pages.

You could call Eggshells a character-driven novel, though you don’t often meet a protagonist as driven as Vivian, a vulnerable, youngish Dublin woman in dogged search of herself, and what an idiosyncratic self she proves to be. Sufficiently idiosyncratic to have me look up its Greek/French roots in my Dictionary of Etymology – “personal peculiarity” – which describes Vivian to a T.

Her voice, too, lies at the heart of the story, a highly inventive, consistently compelling first-person voice through which Vivian tells us how she believes herself a changeling, and how she is determined to find a portal back to her fairy world. Our protagonist also possesses a keen awareness of language, down to its bare roots of vowels & consonants – though such verbal facility is not always in her own best interest, as readers will quickly discover.

Our narrator possesses a keen eye too, as suggested by her description of taxi-drivers pushing their cars forward to close a gap at a taxi rank on O’Connell St like they were “birthing calves or playing tug of war or straining against the weight of an automated world”. The same keen eye with which she searches through supermarket apples, “seeking out the most bruised fruit because nobody else wants them, like nobody wanted me on their team in PE class in school”. Or with which she spots the graffito NOT ME on an abandoned hotel down along the quays. “I would like to meet the writer of those words,” Vivian tells us. “I’m not me either, and there’s a possibility we could be each other, or we could be friends at least.”

There is humour aplenty too, though Vivian’s tale is at heart anything but comic. And so while I sometimes even laughed aloud, I heard myself ruefully doing so – given the almost palpable pain of her story. And the fact I kept on laughing in turn set me to pondering over the difference between humour and comic.

As it happens, Mark Twain himself helpfully lists no less than eight differences between the two, the first being that an American story is humorous, and a comic one British. I’ve no argument with that, but arguably more helpful for my purposes is Twain’s belief that while a comic tale calls upon details and fact, a humorous story depends far more on its effect upon the reader, which speaks, I think, to the almost tangible heartache underlying any laughter at Vivian’s carry-on. And if pathetic is how Vivian’s neighbours view her apple-tree climbing antics and other eccentricities, a more painful pathos is more likely what readers will encounter.

At the same time, Eggshells serves as an outright paean to Dublin as Vivian walks its streets à la Leopold Bloom, only in her case intently searching for a passageway across to the other side. A wonderfully Joycean novel so, only one with far more graffiti and in Vivian’s case, a quest for the ineluctable modality of the invisible.

As for myself, I must have cycled over Binn’s Bridge in Drumcondra some 500 times without having spotted Brendan Behan’s statue below on a bench beside the Royal Canal with a sculpted pigeon pal. However, after encountering it through Vivian’s eyes, I found myself cycling down from the bridge a few weeks later for a closer look – only to discover a blue plastic bag of trash hanging from the pigeon’s neck. I promptly deposited it in the nearest bin, but will confess that I also thought about passing word of my discovery on to Vivian, whose own story is filled with precisely that kind of happenstance.

I also found myself wondering while reading Eggshells – much as we do when reading a children’s book – of how ever would the novel end? And wondering at what moment in the story might the magic realism that Vivian so earnestly seeks possibly check in? Whether or no, when the ending arrives, it makes perfect sense – indeed, how could it be otherwise?

Last word, though, goes to Mark Twain, who informs us that while anybody can tell a comic story, “the humorous story is strictly a work of art – high and delicate art – and only an artist can tell it”. So give yourself a treat with the the patent artistry of this wise, highly crafted and patently heartfelt novel.

Eggshells is published by Liberties Press, priced €12.99. Hodges Figgis is offering a 10 per cent discount to Book Club readers.

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