I’m not really sure where to start with this book. I’m not really even totally sure how I feel about this book at all. This book was just awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, which is given out every year by Trinity College Dublin, which is where Caitriona Lally happens to work… as a janitor. I read an article about her and was intrigued. She got the idea for the book when she was unemployed after being laid off and spent her days roaming Dublin trying to figure out what to do with herself. That is a great idea for a book, and I checked and it was available at my library, so I gave it a shot. It was not what I was expecting, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Vivian has inherited her Great Aunt Maude’s house. Before inheriting it she had lived there with Maude as her caretaker, but now that mean old Maude is gone, Vivian lives there alone. She is unemployed, she was laid off from her job and undetermined amount of time ago, but long enough that she has settled into some odd habits and a social worker is going to pay a visit soon to see about how she’s getting on with the job hunt. Vivian is also convinced she is a changeling, and spends most of her days going to the various places in Dublin that she thinks may contain magical doors that will let her return to the place she should be living.
That last sentence is the big crux. A lot of the reviews and the description indicate that Vivian is lonely and quirky. She is, but in reading the book it is quite clear that there are bigger things than that at play here and Vivian has some pretty serious mental issues that are not being dealt with. She is a hoarder, it sounds like Maude had some hoarding tendencies as well. Maude liked chairs, her entire house is full of them. So now, Vivian goes around sitting in all the chairs that can actually be sat in so none of them feel left out. The house is infested with mice, but Vivian doesn’t want to make them leave because mice are cute. Vivian does not like to smell like soap, she wants to smell like herself, and she wants her house to smell like her, so she doesn’t bathe or clean unless absolutely required to. When she gets nervous, she counts her fingers and repeats “safe, safe, safe” to herself. Vivian is not being glib or hyperbolic when she says she thinks she’s a changeling. She literally means it and actively tries to “cross over.”
Part of what makes this book tricky is that it is totally first person from Vivian’s perspective. Unreliable narrator doesn’t even begin to cover it with Vivian. We have all ended up sitting next to Vivian on the bus at some point. She seems average enough at first, but then you notice that her clothes really don’t match… and she has really strong BO… and then she looks at you and says something just a little too weird. You aren’t afraid of her, but you know that things are not quite right. This book comes from inside that person’s head. Vivian knows she isn’t good at conversations, so she makes lists of topics and plans out things to say to other people and then tries to interject it at any opportunity, like at one point she tries to come up with “bus conversation.” Or she decides to only eat blue food, when the cashier asks if it’s for her son’s birthday, she panics and basically tells the woman that her wheelchair bound son is home alone while she goes shopping.
Vivian is very lonely, that is clear. She is also not functioning well. She needs assistance, major medical and social intervention. One thing I think this book does very does well, you can see how she’s just together enough to slip through the cracks and not get the help she very desperately needs. She isn’t really a danger to anyone, but she is very clearly foundering and I finished this book really worried for her. I don’t want to use words like “normal,” and I think part of what is going on with Vivian is the fact that she really isn’t what most of us would call “normal,” but that isn’t the real problem. Being atypical is not a problem. Ending up in a place where you are so alienated from the world you live in that you can’t really function beyond the most basic ways is the problem. But where is the line?
At one point, she decides she wants a friend named Penelope, so she puts an ad on a tree asking for a Penelope who needs a friend to call her. This is how she meets pretty much her only friend, Penelope, who is just as odd as Vivian.It’s clear that Penelope is a good person, and has a lot of issue, just like Vivian, and in a lot of ways it’s really good they find each other.
We get insinuations that Vivian was pretty brutally abused when she was a child. She has an older sister named Vivian, who she has a pretty tenuous relationship with. Yes, her sister is also named Vivian. Their parents did that on purpose, as well as telling narrator Vivian that she was a changeling and other glossed over things that, when you stop to think about it, are really not great. Sister Vivian gets a bit of a short shrift here. She’s pretty harsh to her sister, but at the same time she’s really the only person who is seeing the reality here, and while it’s clear sister Vivian has reached the end of her rope, she won’t cut out her sister, she still visits and takes her phone calls and does what she can, even if she loses her temper pretty quickly. I think I had quite a bit of sympathy for Vivian’s sister, it’s very hard to watch a family member go through something like this and not really know what to do.
All that said, I liked Vivian and I think I liked this book, even if it really made me uncomfortable at times. It did make me really very uncomfortable at times, which is where a lot of my ambiguity with this book comes from. It is really fabulously written, though, which is especially important when you’re going to jump in to a topic like this. I don’t think I would have made it to the end if the writing weren’t such high quality.