Eggshells by Caitriona Lally, review by Shirley Wells
Fans of Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh or even Sara Baume's Spill Simmer Falter Wither will find much to like in Eggshells by Caitriona Lally. It features a quirky, socially-awkward protagonist whose interactions with the world around her prove both humorous and heartbreaking.
There's a clever ambiguity about the narrator Vivian; it's hard to get a grasp on her mental state since she really doesn't fit in anywhere. Is she eccentric, autistic, OCD, severely disturbed? She can, at times, appear to be all four. Perhaps Vivian's oddest trait is that she believes she is a changeling. As the Irish poet W. B. Yeats defined it, "Sometimes the fairies fancy mortals, and carry them away into their own country, leaving instead some sickly fairy child... " Vivian's parents told her she was left by the fairies, and she takes their fanciful assessment of her unusual personality literally: "They tried to exchange me for their rightful daughter, but they must not have gone to the right places or asked the right questions." Where her parents failed, Vivian is determined to succeed. Thus, her daily wanderings around Dublin in search of a portal to a fairy land provide readers with a fascinating, albeit a bit bizarre, tour around the capital city. Although this may remind you of another Irish author's tour of Dublin, especially in regard to the author's concern with language and form over plot, this is not just a reworking of or homage to Ulysses.
In spite of her whimsical search, Vivian appears to be stuck in a dreary existence. She lives alone in a dilapidated house that her great-aunt left to her. She has no friends, no job, and few social skills. But then she advertises for a friend named Penelope by pinning a notice to a tree (isn't that how all friendships begin?!), and someone named Elaine actually answers her ad. This friendship causes Vivian's world to change—yes, the changeling herself begins to change. But can she stop searching for a portal to another world if she finds a connection to someone in this world?
Despite her unusual quirks and her odd quest, Vivian is a sympathetic character, and her love—and obsessive recording—of words will especially endear her to many like-minded logophiles. Lally's debut novel reads like an urban fairy tale filled with inventive wordplay and a hunt for meaning through language. It also provides us with a subtle lesson in empathy for the lost and lonely who, like Vivian, are seeking their place in the world.