Review: Eggshells, by Caitriona Lally: full of action and humour
Walking around Dublin in search of a fairytale world
In his analysis of the works of James Joyce, the novelist, linguist and literary critic Anthony Burgess maintained that there are two types of novels – those focused on the world at large, with plot and character central, and those concerned with language and form.
This week’s column looks at a novel that prizes language over plot while bringing the reader on a tour of Dublin. Familiar as that description sounds, especially at this time of year, it’s not that novel, but a debut by a new Irish author.
Caitriona Lally’s Eggshells is an altogether less complex, more reader friendly book. While light on plot, it is full of action and humour as its beguiling narrator, Vivian Lawlor, takes her surreal jaunts around the capital in search of a portal to another world.
Vivian is a self-professed changeling, left by fairies to compete with her parents’ human child, also called Vivian. With the parents dead, the two adult Vivians are all that remain. Human Vivian is married with children and uninterested in her sister’s strange ways. The narrator lives alone in her great-aunt’s house, filling her days with sugary treats, dressing up and a variety of bizarre pastimes as she seeks a way out of this world and back to her own.
It is an interesting set-up, with a clever ambiguity surrounding the narrator. The book is rooted in the natural world of contemporary Dublin, but to Vivian’s eyes this is a fairytale world, full of rules of threes and sixes, and potential gateways to supernatural lands. How much of her changeling status is fictional, the delusions of a severely disturbed character, is left for the reader to puzzle over. This question gives momentum to Vivian’s escapades. It also, somewhat unexpectedly, provides plenty of laughs in a book full of one-liners.
Much of the humour comes from the author’s preoccupation with language and wordplay. Vivian tells a social worker enquiring about her job prospects: “I am open-minded. Sometimes I wear my slippers on the opposite feet to change my worldview.” As she searches for portals across the city – St Stephen’s Green, Glasnevin cemetery, the canals, the Liffey bridges – her literal take on language brings about many absurd situations. The need for precision in language is a major theme, with Vivian constantly drawing attention to the gap between speech and meaning. “I wake on a damp pillow,” she tells us. “My dreams must have leaked.”
A loose plot develops out of this affinity with language when Vivian pins a notice to a tree: “I want a friend called Penelope. When I know her well enough, I’ll ask her why she doesn’t rhyme with Antelope.” The new friend, actually called Elaine, is another oddball character. Struggling herself with mother issues and an obsession with painting cats, Elaine/Penelope doesn’t judge. More importantly, she promises she’ll organise a vertical burial for Vivian, which is all Vivian has ever wanted in a friend.
The black comedy gives the book a jaunty quality that complements the dazzling trip around Dublin. From the “soot-streaked backs of the buildings at the junction of George’s Street and Dame Street” to the “fierce bang of hops from the Guinness factory, a smell somewhere between meat and toffee”, Lally uses Vivian’s otherworldly perspective to bring the city to life.
From Dublin, the author studied English in Trinity and came to prominence through the Irish Writers Centre’s 2014 Novel Fair initiative. Her debut recalls the work of another Irish debutant, Sara Baume, whose acclaimed novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither was published earlier this year. The loner narrators of both books offer unique takes on modern Ireland, a country where many are struggling. In a scene that is reminiscent of Ray’s refuge at the beach in Spill, Lally’s Vivian ponders the world through landscape: “I used to think if I found the perfect shell I would find the shape of the world, but I was always disappointed.”
Unskilled and unexperienced, Vivian fills her days with whimsical pursuits – a party of blue foods, trawling through her great-aunt’s library to compile a list of the books’ final words, digging herself a stand-up grave in the garden. Her busybody neighbours observe her behaviour, aghast: “Ah Vivian, would you look at yourself, a grown woman up a tree on a day like today.”
But for all its whimsy, at the heart of Eggshells is the desperation of a character who clings to language as a code to understand a world from which she’s excluded. Vivian’s hunt for meaning through language brings to mind another Burgess comment, that all novels are to some degree experimental, but it is their language that makes them spectacular. As Vivian eavesdrops on society’s conversations, what she hears tells its own sorry tale: “They each talk as if the other wasn’t there. They would shove their words into the ears of a cockroach if they thought it would listen.”