By Catriona Lally; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
The main character in this novel is Vivian Lawlor, a quirky, eccentric, socially awkward woman who spends most of her life walking Dublin looking for portals or thin spots where she could “cross over.”
Her parents believe that she is a changeling and try to force her (in life-threatening and other ways) to go back to the other side with the fairies and odd ones. Inexplicably, they have named both of their daughters Vivian. Vivian’s older sister is utterly conventional.
Vivian’s wide-ranging rambles around Dublin give readers a running description of Dublin’s streets, squares, statues of poets in parks, odd kiosks, and arched doorways between neighborhoods — everything you’d need, in short, to have a wonderful stay in Dublin.
“I like the place where one thing meets another — that’s where the magic gets in . . . The middle is the scary part,”Vivian tells her sole friend Penelope. She looks for patterns, in the last words of books, street names or graffiti. She takes note whether clocks in public spaces keep the correct time. She goes to thrift stores and leaves money in the pockets of sweaters. She traces a map of her walks at the end of each day and describes the shapes.
In its own quirky way, this prize-winning book works. There’s no grand drama. Vivian is definitely strange, but she wins you over. She clearly has some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but she’s curious and has a wide range of interests. She is an endearing character. Penelope’s willing acceptance of her unusual requests is endearing as well. Her attempts to come up with conversation starters and display normal manners are touching.
Vivian’s adventures are often humorous: the confused conversation between Vivian and a guard at an abandoned psychiatric hospital who mistakes her for a former patient; her attempt to cross the River Styx in a Dublin taxicab; and the juxtaposition of Vivian’s sister’s utterly normal, suburban, middle class life and that of Vivian herself. Not to mention Lally’s delightful word-play.
EGGSHELLS (2015) was Lally’s first novel. She became unemployed in 2011 and was walking the streets looking for “staff wanted” signs when she came up with the idea of the character Vivian, looking to connect and belong. Eventually she found a data entry job and decided to develop the character into a book.
It won the 2018 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. This $11,500 prize is awarded in association with Trinity to a writer younger than 40 who shows great talent and exceptional promise. The prize committee praised the book as “a work of impressive imaginative reach, witty, subtle and occasionally endearingly unpredictable.”
Jeannette Hartman is the creator and book reviewer at BookReviewsbyJeannette.com.