Fiction – paperback; The Borough Press; 272 pages; 2018.
Last September Catriona Lally made headlines for winning the €10,000 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature 2018 (for writers under the age of 40), issued by the university in which she works as a cleaner. (See this article in The Irish Times.)
The prize was for her debut novel, Eggshells, which was first published in Ireland in 2014, but has since been reissued in the UK and Ireland by Borough Press.
I bought the book on a trip to Dublin in November unaware of its history (I didn’t know it was four years old, for a start, and mine doesn’t have the sticker on the front as per the one I’ve used to illustrate this review), attracted in part by the lovely cover but more because I liked the sound of the story.
A loner who sees the world differently
Set in Dublin, it’s told through the eyes of Vivian, an unemployed young woman who lives alone in the house she inherited from her recently deceased great aunt. Vivian has no parents and has a strained relationship with her only sibling, a sister who lives on the other side of town with a husband and two small children.
She’s essentially all alone in the world but doesn’t seem to mind terribly. Her only contact with the outside world is via her neighbours (who complain that she needs to cut her lawn), the chap from the Social Welfare Office (who tries to help her get a job), and the shopkeepers, hairdressers and butchers she meets when she goes about her day-to-day business.
All her interactions with these people are slightly off-key, as if Vivian is comprehending things on a different level to everyone else. She’s naive and interprets everything literally, which makes for some odd conversations. She loves to make lists — of street names, butterfly species, names of fish, for instance — and tries to find order in what she writes down. Words amuse, delight and sometimes confound her.
She’s not entirely without social skills, because she makes a friend in Penelope, another odd ball character, by putting up an ad for a friend called Penelope “to find out why it doesn’t rhyme with antelope”. (Be honest, who hasn’t wondered this themselves?!)
And she spends most of her days cultivating a chair collection and going for long elaborate walks through the streets of Dublin, then coming home and drawing her route on a piece of paper to see what shape she followed. But it soon becomes clear that these walks take on a special meaning for Vivian: she’s trying to find a portal into another world, one where she will feel as if she truly belongs.
I wake early and listen to the wind in the fireplace in my bedroom. It’s loud, and pieces of soot are blowing down the chimney. This is good; I need a big wind that could turn into a cyclone, because today I’m going to visit Yellow Road and Emerald Street. In ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’, the cyclone carried Dorothy to Oz, and she followed the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald Palace to find her way home. If I find these coloured roads in Dublin, I might find my way home too.
Written in a beguiling tone of voice, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of childhood wonder as you see the world through Vivian’s eyes. There are laugh out loud funny moments dotted throughout and lots of wonderful wordplay. But there’s also a nagging fear that she will come to harm because she can barely look after the poorly goldfish she buys, let alone herself.
Framed around a series of set pieces — a holiday with Penelope, a failed dinner party she hosts for her sister and her family, a visit to the hairdresser — rather than a distinctive plot, Eggshells works by introducing us to a world that seems familiar but is slightly off kilter, where words are constantly misunderstood and social interactions are skewed towards the strange. And for all the black humour there’s an undercurrent of pathos which makes for a particularly poignant read.
Fans of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine will find a lot to like here because both protagonists are cut from similar cloth and the message — that it’s okay to see and experience the world differently to everyone else — is similar. I really loved spending time with Vivian, experiencing her quirky ways and going for intriguing walks through the streets of Dublin with her. It was hard to say goodbye, she was such good company, but I really wish someone sensible had taken her under their wing…
This is my second book for #TBR40.