Eggshells – Review

Eggshells

Caitriona Lally China.png

Liberties Press (254 pages), 2015

Book Launch, €12

VOTE FOR EGGSHELLS! – Eggshells has been nominated in the Best Newcomer category of the Irish Book Awards.  Please vote for her here (scroll down to the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year section).  The winner is decided by a combination of the public vote and a judging panel.

It has been an incredibly strong couple of years for debut Irish fiction (I’m thinking of Colin Barrett, Sara Baume, Gavin Corbett, and a few others) and Eggshells is another exceptional debut.  The novel follows the path taken through life by the idiosyncratic Vivian.  Vivian is an outsider who does not fit in with society’s ideas of how a person should behave.

Eggshells is a love story but not of the traditional kind.  Vivian loves people but struggles to connect with others.  Her search is not for romantic love but for the love of genuine friendship.  She doesn’t want to be alone.  Eggshells opens with Vivian talking to imaginary people on the chairs in her dead great-aunt’s house.  Vivian starts writes letters to the people she finds in her great-aunt Maud’s address book.  She plans to post them some of Maud’s ashes.  Vivian sees nothing strange in posting people she doesn’t know her great-aunt’s ashes.  This bittersweet humour permeates the novel.  Eggshells is both hilarious and sad at the same time.  Vivian attempts to make sense of a confusing world through words.  She notices street signs (especially defaced ones), shop names, museum tags, and she is an inveterate list writer.  Vivian’s relationships with people are, at best, awkward.  Her neighbours look down on her, her sister is ashamed of her, and her interactions with bureaucrats and shop workers are painfully funny.  It is not surprising that Vivian’s attempt to find a friend takes the form of a written poster.  A poster is safer than trying to meet someone face to face.

Eggshells offers the reader a chance to walk the streets of Dublin with Vivian.  She walks around the city taking in its sights and sounds.  I won’t mention the U word here as Lally didn’t read James Joyce’s most famous work until after she’d written Eggshells but the novel offers a unique vision of contemporary Dublin.  There is magic in Lally’s writing and Dublin becomes a portal for Vivian’s imagination to connect with another world.  Like Haruki Murakami, Lally succeeds in making the ordinary transform into the extraordinary.

Some reviewers have tried to identify Vivian’s mental illness even though it’s doubtful she is mentally ill.  She is different, yes, maybe strange at times, but her strangeness is no different from most people’s.  Vivian is simply more open about her thoughts, she doesn’t feel the need to hide her feelings. She overshares in a way which is acceptable on social media but somehow forbidden in the real world.  Perhaps the character most similar to Vivian is Christopher in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  Christopher is presumed to have autism or Asberger’s syndrome but Haddon has said that he never intended to label Christopher in such a way.  Likewise labelling Vivian, even if she does have some form of mental illness, is reductive.  Vivian’s warmth and humanity, and her desire for basic human friendship means she has much more in common with us than we might realise.

Vivian’s relationship with her sister is strained.  Vivian’s sister is also called Vivian.  Her sister is like a socially acceptable version of herself.  Sister Vivian is judgmental and overly concerned about other people’s opinions.  Sister Vivian has no time for her strange sibling.  Vivian has no hope of love and warmth within the traditional family unit.  Her quest for portals to a different place is actually a quest for friendship.  Apparently one publisher was interested in publishing Eggshells but only on condition that Lally changed the story into a traditional male/female romance. It is wonderful to watch Vivian and Penelope’s relationship develop. Thankfully Lally refused to go down the mainstream route and used the pressures felt by Vivian to create a literary diamond.

Related Links

Caitriona Lally article on writing a novel while unemployed in the Irish Times.

Irish Times review

Irish Independent review

Guardian review

Totally Dublin review

Niamh Boyce interview with Caitriona Lally

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Dublin Marathon 2015 Review

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I found this post in my drafts  box and thought I’d better finish it before the 2016 one!  The 2015 Dublin Marathon was, as always, excellently organised.  The random allocation of numbers on the day of the Expo seemed to reduce queues (in the past you received your number before registration and then your name was crossed off a list).

My previous best Dublin Marathon time was run last year in just over 2 hours 56 minutes.  I had tried to beat 2 hours 55 minutes three times.  I ran the Dubai Marathon in 2014 and blew up!  I finished in over 3 hours 12 minutes.  I wasn’t fully trained, was over my ideal running weight, and relatively high temperatures (for an Irish man the finishing temperature of over 20 degrees in January was too much) all contributed to my performance.  Also there was little support on the incredibly boring course.  Basically though I wasn’t fit enough and went out too fast for my fitness level at the time.

In Dublin last year I was better trained and ran a more sensible first half.  The weather was a major factor though.  It was very windy and surprisingly humid and warm (around 17 degrees) for the end of October.  I was very happy with the race but spent a bit too much time on my own and had decided, if possible, to try and stick with a group this year.

I ran the 2015 Limerick Marathon in under 2 hours 58 minutes which was off my 2 hours 55 minutes target.  It wasn’t as well organised as Dublin (especially registering at the expo and post-race) and hillier than I thought it would be.  I went out a bit too quickly but was trying to stay with a group of three other runners.  Unfortunately the group split (one was slower and the others were too fast for me) and I spent most of the second half on my own.  You went into the city centre but came out again up a very tough hill towards Thomond Park.  I really suffered in the last miles and even though I was under 3 hours and less than 2 minutes slower than my best time I was shattered by the end.  Like in Dubai I couldn’t even manage a final mile surge!

So after Limerick I decided to concentrate on getting my 5km time down.  I didn’t run much more this year but ran harder when I did run.  I wanted to get my 5km time below 17 minutes and managed to get it down to 16:14.  This made a bigger difference to my longer runs than expected as I could comfortably run 10 miles at 6 minute mile pace.

My real surprise was when I ran the Dublin Half Marathon.  I was sort of aiming for under 1 hour 20 mins but finished in under 1 hour 16 minutes.  I was very surprised but managed to get with a fast moving group and stay with them.  I left them with about 4 miles to go, overtook another 4 people and finished in the top 20.  I was quite shocked as I finished very strongly and it showed me that, given the right conditions, I was capable of a fast time.

Another key factor was that my partner’s brother had managed to do a superb sub 2 hours 50 minute run in this year’s London Marathon.  We are of very similar ability but before his result I never thought it was possible for me to go sub 2 hours 50 minutes.  He showed that with the right training and a solid group of runners around you it was possible to go quickly over the entire course.  The increase in pace from a 6:52 per mile pace for a sub 3 hour marathon to a 6:29 pace for a sub 2 hour 50 marathon is quite a big one.  But the Dublin Half Marathon showed I could achieve my goal if I had a bit more belief and the right conditions on the day.

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I read up on the carbo-loading sections of Advanced Marathoning (kindly given to me by my other half’s brother last Christmas!) to make sure I was taking in enough carbs in the days before.  I drank beetroot juice the week before.  I’ve no idea if this had any effect at all!  And I hoped the weather would be okay.  Everything went to plan except for the weather.  I awoke on the Sunday night to hear the wind howling outside.  It was still quite windy when I got up at 5.45am for my last meal and it had been raining overnight.  I went in a bit earlier than normal as I cut it a bit tight last year and this year had a record entry (with over 12,500 finishers).  I dropped my bags and didn’t have to queue for the toilets so had about 40 minutes to warm up before the start.  Thankfully I brought an old fleece and a disposable poncho to keep me warm and protect me from the light rain at the start.

It was windy enough but my plan was to be sure to be in a group as we went into the Phoenix Park so that I could shelter from the strong headwind.  My start  went to as planned.  Once we left the park for the first time (we’d re-enter it later) I knew there would be a tailwind so used this to build up some time.  I joined a group with the leading Irish woman in it.  This began to splinter by halfway when you face the headwind again but without the benefit of a larger group to absorb some of the wind.  I was just under 1 hour 22 minutes at halfway.  Ideally I wanted to be about 1 hour 21 minutes but was feeling okay.  I saw my parents at about  17 miles which was a bit of a boost.  I felt fairly strong although I began to feel the first real struggling at about 18 miles.  Luckily it passed and I managed to keep roughly under 6:20 per mile pace.  I felt surprisingly okay as I went up the first “heartbreak hill” in Milltown.  For the first time I actually remember going up the second “heartbreak hill” at about 22 miles on Roebuck Road.  I was in such pain in previous marathons that I never remember running up it!  My lungs and legs felt quite good but I made a mistake by running down the steep hill at Foster’s Avenue at too high a pace.  My lungs were good but the hill was too hard on my calves.  I was with two other runners but as I crossed the flyover at UCD I couldn’t follow them by hopping up the kerb because my calves had the dreaded cramp twitches – push too hard and I was risking full blown cramps.  I eased off a little but managed not to let my legs cramp up.  With about a mile to go the finish line reduced any pain and I managed to do a very pleasurable sprint for the last few hundred metres.  I was about half a minute outside my 1 hour 45 minute goal but was still delighted as I was over 9 minutes quicker than my PB and finished in the top 100.

It’s less than a week to go to the first ever sold out Dublin Marathon (with 20,000 entrants it is now the fourth biggest marathon in Europe) and I’m looking forward to trying to go under 1 hour 45.  To be honest I don’t feel quite as fit as last year but will give it my best shot!