by Caitriona Lally

Vivian Lawlor is the sort of person you see — and try to avoid.

She’s the person in the coffee shop who starts a conversation that doesn’t make sense. She’s the person wearing clothes that look like they belong to someone else or that are on inside out or need a trip to a washing machine. She’s the woman standing in front of a museum display case madly taking notes.

In short, Vivian doesn’t fit in, doesn’t belong and doesn’t know the ropes.

Vivian inherited her great-aunt Maud’s house. She also inherited her two nosy neighbors, who watch and comment on Vivian’s comings and goings whenever she opens her front door.

Vivian is not the only eccentric in her family. “My great-aunt kept chairs the way some people keep cats,” Vivian tells us. Her parents name both Vivian and her older sister Vivian. They believed that Vivian (our narrator) is odd because she is a changeling. They tried to force her (in life-threatening and other ways) to go back to the other side with the fairies and odd ones.

Vivian spends most of her life walking Dublin looking for portals or thin spots where she could cross over. “I like the place where one thing meets another — that’s where the magic gets in . . . The middle is the scary part,” she 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 odd way, this prize-winning book works. Vivian, who clearly has some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder, is an endearing character. Her descriptions of her tramps around Dublin: the statues of poets in the parks, odd kiosks, arched doorways between neighborhoods are fascinating. Her new friend Penelope’s willing acceptance of her strange requests is endearing as well.

Nothing dramatic happens in this book. Vivian is definitely odd, but she wins you over. She’s curious and has a wide range of interests. Her attempts to come up with conversation starters and display normal manners are touching.

Vivian’s adventures are often humorous: the number of times homeless people ask her for money for “a hostel”; the confused conversation between Vivian and the guard at an abandoned psychiatric hospital who mistakes her for a former patient; and the juxtaposition of Vivian’s sister Vivian’s utterly normal, suburban, middle class life and that of Vivian herself. Author Caitriona Lally’s word-play is delightful.

About the Author: Caitriona Lally

EGGSHELLS (2015) was Caitriona Lally’s debut novel and won the 2018 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. This $11,500 prize is awarded in association with Trinity College, Dublin, to a writer younger than 40 who shows great talent and exceptional promise.

Lally graduated from Trinity and worked as a janitor. The prize committee praised the book as “a work of impressive imaginative reach, witty, subtle and occasionally endearingly unpredictable.”

In 2019, she won the 2019 Lannan Literary Fellowship for Fiction, worth $100,000.

Lally has had a varied working life, including teaching English in Japan for a year, working as a home aide in New York and working as a copywriter in Ireland. She started writing EGGSHELLS after becoming unemployed in 2011. She had been walking the streets of Dublin looking for “staff wanted” signs and came up with the idea of the character Vivian, looking to connect and belong. She eventually found a job doing data entry and decided to develop the character and write the book.

After her book was published in 2015, she found herself unemployed again and went back to being a janitor at Trinity College.

She and her husband, who works for the Irish government, live in Dublin. They have two children.


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