From junkie dramatics to nosy neighbours, if you’ve lived in Dublin long enough, there is a good chance that you’ll have come across many of the situations that arise in Caitriona Lally’s debut novel Eggshells.
But through the eyes of the books protagonist, Vivian, these everyday scenes are very different.
We are introduced to Vivian in her inherited home, which is full to bursting with clutter and a chair collection. She is holding her Aunt Maud’s ashes, but doesn’t know what to do with them. After her death, Vivian cremated her aunt to ensure that she was well and truly dead. This type of brutal honesty appears throughout her narrative, often resulting in a chuckle for any reader who understands social norms.
It soon becomes clear that Vivian isn’t your average Dubliner. She is convinced she is a changeling who doesn’t belong here and spends her days traipsing around the city looking for a portal back to her world, desperately hoping she can find Narnia.
She imagines Dublin street names have a magical meaning and visits them to search for this portal. Each chapter tracks a day in Vivian’s life and the places she visits along the way.
Vivian has other quirks too; she has a fascination with words and makes extensive lists, which are painful to read at times. She is constantly personifying words or objects and can relate to them more than people, waving at statues as she passes them.
She awkwardly tries to copy the behaviour of those she observes, saying she is in between laughs because she doesn’t like hers. She takes tips from Fawlty Towers when welcoming guests into her home.
Vivian appears to have some sort of intellectual disability, although it is never labelled. The book’s style calls to mind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, which was narrated by a teenager with mild autism. Similarly, it features detailed descriptions and a protagonist who doesn’t understand others or their emotions.
But Eggshells isn’t as dramatic; the most exciting occurrences are a day of eating blue foods and a visit from the social-welfare officer, for whom Vivian wears khakis to show she is a serious job hunter – this scene was definitely a highlight.
The story is slow to start, but by chapter five it becomes more engaging and humorous. However Vivian’s long thought processes endure, as does the compulsive list making which seems pointless once we are introduced to Vivian’s mindset.
After advertising for a new friend called Penelope, Vivian’s social life gets a boost when a free-spirited, cat-loving artist responds. The pair seems to be a good match, both agreeing that “hygiene is overrated”.
Even though she is a social-welfare recipient, Vivian has no financial worries. Job seeking is more of a hobby for her as she looks for a position as a bubble blower. Eggshells would probably connect with more people if Vivian did struggle with money, but that would make for a very different story.
Being unemployed does have an effect on Vivian that many can relate to. We see her waste her days away as she fills them with nonsensical activities to stay busy, such as planning trips to more than one shop in order to maximise the number of sentences she can say. Her biggest achievement is finishing a baked-beans jigsaw, which shows the loneliness and sadness of her existence. Dreams about wasted things begin to invade her sleep.
On a lighter note, Vivian’s thoughts and creative descriptions are so ludicrous that they often induce a laugh. She makes amusing, yet striking, observations about Dublin. Eggshells could be an alternative guide to the city, which includes a comprehensive list of the street signs that have letters missing.
Despite feeling lost, Vivian’s knowledge of Dublin is impressive; she is familiar with hidden places that would take residents years to discover. Although she is clueless about her strangeness, it’s a pity she doesn’t meet more accepting people.
Eggshells is the perfect gift to send to expats of Dublin. The detailed descriptions of it’s streets, buildings and natives would be a pleasant and comical reminder of the city.
The author could have done more to draw the reader in. The plot is more of an afterthought as Eggshells focuses only on Vivian, who ignores other people’s speech if they speak at length. More information about her background would be engaging; many questions are left unanswered at the end: why did she hate her aunt? How old is she?
If you are a fan of action, I definitely wouldn’t recommend this book. But if you have some patience, a fascination with word play or a love for Dublin, Eggshells is worth reading for its fresh view of the city and its charming, meaningful climax.
Eggshells by Caitriona Lally (Liberties Press, May 2015)
Editor’s note: the managing editor of Dublin Inquirer is married to the managing editor of Liberties Press, the publisher of this book.