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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