Book Review: Eggshells by Caitriona Lally… poignant hilarity

I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a book as much as Caitriona Lally’s Eggshells.

Eggshells

Nor can I remember a character who amused, entertained and wrenched my heart as much as Vivian, the eccentric young woman who gives us a tour of Dublin and of her unique wit and creative mind.

Vivian is unusual. So much so that when she was young her parents told her that she was not of this world and had been left by the fairies. And to be sure, Vivian has never much felt that she fits in, that she belongs to this world. So now, as a young woman, she spends her time searching Dublin for portals that will take her to that other world. She searches in the small vents built into the shelves of Trinity College Library, into the electric panel in front of the Gate Theater, in the ivy covered house on D’Olier Stree, through the small door in a department store on Grafton Street. But of course to no avail.

And her wanderings around Dublin City–with more than a jaunty nod to that other writer of peripatetic Dubliners, James Joyce–are a playful, magical tour of the city filled with word lists and wit, double entendres and non sequitors.

However, Vivian is very much alone in this world. Her parents are dead, her sister, who is also named Vivian, is repulsed and confused by her eccentricity, and she is living in the house that her dead great-aunt bequeathed to her, bordered on either side by neighbors who question her mental state.

Being lonely, she advertises for a friend, a friend named Penelope. Her reasoning is she wants to ask this Penelope why her name doesn’t rhyme with “antelope.” Plus she feels good about anyone who has three “Es” in her name.

Here is her advert that she tapes onto a tree:

WANTED: Friend Called Penelope
Must Enjoy Talking Because I Don’t Have Much to Say.
Good Sense of Humor Not Required
Because My Laugh Is a Work in Progress.
Must Answer to Penelope: Pennies Need Not Apply.
Phone Vivian.

And such a friend appears: A middle-aged Penelope who paints cats in different costumes and who has her own satchel of issues. On their second visit together–a visit filled with tea and a large amount of cookies–Vivian learns that Penelope is forty-nine years old. (In her innocence, she had guessed she was sixty.) Penelope’s age worries her since one of the reasons she would like to have a friend is so that someone would go to her funeral. And in Vivian’s mind, Penelope might die before her…so she suggests a carrot rather than a biscuit improve her new friend’s health.

A sign of how much I am enjoying a book is often measured by how many times I read out passages to the people I am around. (It is an annoying habit, I am sure.) And I have read out so many passages of Eggshells to other people that some of them probably feel they don’t need to read it. Usually it happens when I have also been laughing out loud. And laughter happened throughout.

Vivian’s wonderful mind is filled with a logic that is both skewered and sound. Of course, a corn kernel might feel lonely off the cob, lemons might feel better scattered over Lemon Street, and the taxi at Ferryman’s Crossing (with a wife named Sharon which reminds her of Charon) might be able to take her across the river to Hades.

And it is this confluence of slanted logic and the real world on which the humor is built. To a large man, whom she believes might be a leprechaun, she asks if he takes “growth hormones.” For the social-services agent who comes to see if she is actively hunting for a job, she wears a hunter’s outfit. (And startles him mightily when she surprises him with a toy gun.) To the pest on the bus who badgers her for twenty euros, she offers him all that she has with her: lemons.

But my examples hardly capture the humor, for they are missing Vivian’s voice which is filled with innocence and faith and hope.

With Eggshells, Caitriona Lally has written a wondrous first novel filled with boisterous word play, hilarious oddities, charming narrative and an unforgettable protagonist. It is

Caitriona Lally

Caitriona Lally

a magical romp through Dublin, guided by a lonely but hopeful and inventive young woman.

Eggshells is the work of an important new voice in fiction, a voice that I am greatly looking forward to hearing again soon.

 

 

 

Book Review: Himself by Jess Kidd

It was pure coincidence that I read two books in a row that were populated with ghosts. (Not my “genre” of choice.) And odder still that the second one (Artful by Ali Smith) was a book of non-fiction, literary criticism in the form of four lectures.

But Himself by Jess Kidd is an out and out ghost story. Or maybe it’s a murder mystery that just

Himself book cover

Himself by Jess Kidd

happens to have many ghosts milling about and assisting the solution. Or perhaps it’s simply that the two “detectives” have the ability to see dead people all over the place.

Your main man, Mahony–an outsider who is drop-dead handsome with bedeviling eyes and a “bad-boy” aura–walks through the woods and sees the dead everywhere. A suicide twists in a tree. A little girl with bashed-in skull befriends and walks with him. The residents of the local churchyard visit him en masse as he sits there sneaking a smoke.

And his partner, the nonagenarian, Mrs. Cauley, who describes herself as “Miss Marple with balls,” also is accompanied by various persons from the other side, including a loyal ex-lover, Johnny,  and a good priest, Father Jack, who can offer some insight into the murder.

When he was an infant, Mahony’s mother was murdered brutally in the first pages of the novel. As the murderer was preparing a grave for her, the infant was whisked away and ended up across the country in a Dublin orphanage. Some two-and-a-half decades later and spurred on by a newly discovered letter from the orphanage, Mahony returns to the insulated and isolated Mayo village from where his mother disappeared. He–and Mrs. Cauley–believe she was murdered, while the village insists that she caught a train and left town with her illegitimate child.

Set against a small-town background of fear and secrets and guilt and prejudice, the novel is the story of Mahony and Cauley’s investigation and the truth of his mother’s disappearances. And yet, there is so much more going on.

Jess Kidd

Jess Kidd (Author photo © Travis McBride)

Jess Kidd has created a cast of colorful and oddball characters to populate the little village of Mulderrig. And she has added more than a bit of humor. For instance here is the Widow Farelly consoling the mean-spirited priest who took Father Jack’s place:

“Did he ever regret his stance on this matter?”
“I believe he did in the end, Father.”
“But yet the town loved him?”
“Ah the town will be in your pocket soon enough, Father. It’s just a case of them getting used to you. How long have you been with us now?”
“Twenty -six years.”

But her strong point is the lush, beautiful writing. Whether it is the landscape of County Mayo or the towering stacks of books in Miss Cauley’s bedroom. Here is a sample:

And the trees still hold strong. Their canopies drinking every soft grey sky and their roots spreading down deep in the dark, nuzzling clutches of old bones and fingering lost coins. They throw their branches up in wild dances whenever a storm comes in off the bay. And the wind howls right through them, to where the forest ends and the open land begins and the mountains rise up.

Some might criticize certain stereotypes–the intolerant priest, the acidly old widow, the mysterious earth mother–but Kidd gets away with them; they are comforting and necessary in this insulated village mystery. And rather than distracting, the allusions to J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World are entertaining. Both deal with an outsider appearing in an isolated Mayo town who beguiles most of the populace, and the similarities of characters names are amusing. But it doesn’t weaken the story or the writing.

Himself is a wonderful read. But is more than that–it is the announcement of a new writer with a marvelous imagination and a brilliant talent with words.

It is someone I will keep looking for.

A Portrait of the Artist with One Left Foot

Joyce  ©2013 by J.P. Bohannon

Joyce
illustration by jpbohannon © 2013

I’ve had the nice experience of putting two seemingly different works together and seeing startling comparisons that I hadn’t thought of before. In the class I am teaching on Irish Literature, we had begun the semester with Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. From there we moved through some Frank O’Connor stories, some Yeats poems, and three plays by John Millington Synge. And then as a breather, I showed the film My Left Foot, based on the autobiography of the Dublin poet, painter and writer, Christy Brown.

The Artist Joyce as a Young Man

The Artist Joyce as a Young Man

Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot

Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot

I have a fond relationship with My Left Foot which began long before the film was released. A friend of mine was living in San Francisco, working as a nurse. She would search the used book shops looking for the odd nugget, and she was always very kind to me. Every so often there would be a T-shirt from some cleverly-named dive bar, an esoteric album that no one knew about it, or a used book she found in her travels. One day, in the mail came a package containing My Left Foot by Christy Brown. I didn’t know the book at the time though it was twenty years old by then, but the worn and ragged dust jacket and the beaming face of Christy Brown on the back announced the joy, the vibrancy, the humor, and the pathos of the story inside.

I remember reading it twice in a short space of time, of lending it to a friend, and then lending it to another, and soon I lost track of it. And, to be truthful, I forgot about it. Until the movie was released and Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance announced to the world that this was someone to watch.

Viewing it this past week, so close to having finished Joyce’s Portrait, however, impressed on me how similar the story of these two Irish artists are. Joyce’s hero–Stephen Dedalus–is a sensitive, young child, bullied a bit at school, helpless without his glasses.

Christy Brown

Christy Brown

That Christy is also helpless, everyone assumes. Born with cerebral palsy and able to move only his left leg, he spends his early years lying under the stairs watching his family interact with each other—for better or worse. Joyce’s novel also begins with the early interactions of the family. From the hairy face of his father and the nicer smell of his mother when he was an infant to the fierce political/religious argument at Christmas Dinner, the Daedalus family is indeed similar to the Brown family. Particularly in the characterization of the fathers and mothers.

Simon Dedalus and Paddy Brown are hard men, perhaps a bit too fond of the drink. And both young boys, Christy and Stephen, see it as their responsibility to save their families from the fathers’ excesses. The mothers are doting: Christy’s mother innately sure that her son was more than just the vegetable that everyone believed him to be and Dedalus’ mother praying for her son’s soul and protecting him from his father’s increasing wrath.

And it wouldn’t be an Irish tale, if religion didn’t play a part. Father Arnall’s sermon on hell affects Stephen to such a large degree that he believes he might have a priestly vocation. And Christy is taught religion by a priest who comes to the house and who is also fond of describing the fires of hell–and causing young Christy no end of terrors.

Relations with the opposite sex are a stumbling block in both works as well. Sensitive Stephen vacillates from madonna to whore to madonna throughout, while Christy–caged within his crippled body–falls in love easily and is rebuked as often.

But the importance of both works is the creation of the Artist. Joyce’s Dedalus ultimately abandons church, nation and family in order to strike out on his own and “forge …the consciousness of [his] race,” while Christy embraces that world–dear dirty old Dublin and his sprawling family–to find the inspiration of his art. The artistic output–however disparate–is not the point here. The point is the development of an artist within similar constraints and backgrounds, a tale of two young men who travel the same narrative arc in order to discover the art that is within them.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

To one and all, Happy St. Patrick’s Day.