Sunday, 18 November 2018

Book review: Eggshells, Catriona Lally (2018)

This novel won a prize in Ireland, where its author lives, but I wasn’t really that impressed and got only about 22 percent of the way through the book before giving up. Which was a disappointment but you can’t waste time with second-rate product if you want to be a happy reader.

The basic idea is sound enough, it’s just that the execution doesn’t live up to its promise. The novel tells the story of part of the life of Vivian Lawlor, a woman of indeterminate age whose great-aunt has just died, leaving her niece her house to live in. But Vivian is not your average person, and lives with a kind of autistic predilection for sense-making that puts her at odds with the majority of humanity. Her love of small congruences between things in her world, congruences that only she sees, understands, and appreciates, means that she is set apart from the mainstream in a profound sense, and she naturally finds herself at odds with the people around her. She has a scientist’s appreciation for the changing fragrance of her own body odour and an artist’s love of the intricacies of street signs that she sees during her walks around Dublin.

Her neighbour Bernie is a conventional busybody with average standards and a prosaic grasp of reality and Vivian finds her attentions disturbing. One day a man named David from the local welfare office visits Vivian to assess her, evidently in relation to money that the government has been paying her. As with a conversation Vivian has with two sales clerks at her local supermarket, the discussion with David goes as well as you’d imagine for a woman whose idea of a good day out is a visit to the museum where she can write down all the names of the butterflies she sees in the displays. Vivian is unique and charming with her idiosyncratic obsessions with the world – she makes a sketch of the route she has taken in the streets when she gets home after each outing – but you start to wonder when something is going to happen that might have relevance for the reader, or to progress something like a plot.

The potential for disaster seems ever-present going by the nature of Vivian’s conversations with the people she meets but apart from David and Penelope – a friend she met after putting up a sign in the street saying that she was looking for a friend with that name – there are few people whose conduct might have a material effect on Vivian’s life. I felt bored by the endless fussing with inconsequential details that seems to function as consciousness for Vivian, and let down by the fact that there was far less plot than characterisation in this ambitious book.

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