Delightfully eccentric debut from Irish novelist
Fiction: Eggshells, Caitriona Lall, Liberties Press, pbk, 253pp, £ 12.99
'When I return to my great-aunt's house with her ashes, the air feels uncertain, as if it doesn't know how to deal with me."
So declares Vivian, the narrator of Caitriona Lally's delightfully quirky debut novel Eggshells. And it seems the rest of the world doesn't quite know how to deal with Vivian either - an eccentric loner, she lives in her late great-aunt's house with nothing but a miscellany of antique chairs and Cornflake dust for company. Until, one day, she decides to advertise for a friend - specifically, a friend called Penelope - if only so she can ask 'why she doesn't rhyme with antelope'.
Rhymes are very important to Vivian. She spends her days playing with words; devising new languages; trying to make sense of this thing we call communication. Much of this occurs while out wandering the streets of Dublin, noting down road signs with missing letters in case they are passwords to another world - one where a 'Changeling' like her might actually belong. Then she returns home to scribble down a map of her route, her daily excursions now converted into awkward artworks strung up on her wall.
In recent years, it seems Irish fiction has been awash with oddball narrators like Vivian, each offering a unique, eccentric perspective on the world - from Donal Ryan's The Thing About December to Sara Baume's exceptional Spill Simmer Falter Wither (where a mangled advertisement also leads to an unlikely friendship).
Similarly, where Baume has spoken candidly about the bleak, penniless reality of becoming a writer, Lally too has revealed how much of Eggshells was written while she was unemployed and wandering Dublin herself, noting down overheard conversations and wondering when the next job would arrive. So, Lally decided to 'spare' Vivian that bleak reality, and instead to provide her with the 'fantasy' of a house to call her own and a seemingly endless pot of money which she shells out on taxis and haircuts and every random thing her offbeat heart desires.
For some, the narrative gaps surrounding Vivian's 'fantasy' might be an issue. Like why did she inherit the house over her sister (who, by the way, is also called Vivian)? Where did she live before? What actually is her story (or even, her age)? But for most, Vivian's voice alone is enough to keep us reading, charmed by her unique brand of manic, word-hoarding wit.
One of Vivian's many hobbies is to write letters to strangers, though never with a return address - never with the expectation that it will lead to anything more. For her, the joy of that brief connection is enough. And so for readers of Eggshells, connecting with Vivian is indeed such a joy.