Vivian is wonderfully, extraordinarily, odd. She keeps her great aunt’s ashes in a box rather than an urn because “death in a box is more real than death in a jar.” She doesn’t like verbs because they expect too much, and prefers examples to instances. Vivian (she prefers viv, a palindrome) wants a friend named Penelope so that she can eventually ask why Penelope doesn’t rhyme with antelope. She breathes best in the presence of “discordant imperfection.”
Yet Vivian is also unexpectedly kind. She tucks money into the pockets of cardigans in charity shops, and stashes her own money between the pages Hansel and Gretel, “so that the woodcutter can buy food for his family and Hansel and Gretel will be safe from the witch’s oven.”
She believes she is a changeling and spends her days wandering the city, looking for portals. Vivian crosses bridges with a coin under her tongue. She once tries to ask a leprechaun the way to the end of the rainbow. She wears Dorothy’s slippers to search for the Yellow Brick Road, and always checks wardrobes for Narnia. She walks until she finds herself back in her great-aunt’s house, where she draws the shape of the day’s movement and checks on Lemonfish, a pet whose recent acquisition highlights Vivian’s isolation and loneliness.
She wants friends. She asks a telemarketer to take her to a fancy-dress party (she’d go as a migraine), and has a dithering conversation with the receptionist at the hairdresser about the one-legged stance of the number four versus the two, which looks backwards. Vivian’s awkwardness is extreme, but feeling like an outsider is something we can all relate to.
This book is special for so many reasons. Readers never know what Vivian looks like. Shrouding the mirrors after a death is an old Irish custom, and Vivan never removes the sheets from the mirrors. Readers must get to know her without the visual element. Also, Vivian’s quests often have basis in mythology and literature, from the River Styx to Middle Earth, and serve as a love letter to some of the best classic works of fantasy. Vivian’s own musings on language and life, and her constant search for a pattern to unlock the world, explore universal, but easily missed, questions.
She finds patterns and pictures in everything. Every day she draws the shape of her walks: “the ECG of a patient who flatlined briefly, before rallying into a healthy peak;” “a headless, armless man, sliced vertically in two;” “a staircase dangling on a fishrod.” She also trawls her great aunt’s books, recording the last letter in each volume hoping to find a word-pattern, “a code, or message, or a map, leading to [her] rightful world.”
Lally subtly weaves Vivian’s past into the story, but doesn’t over explain. Lally allows Vivan to be herself, without apologies or recriminations. Though she sometimes makes us recoil, Vivian ultimately makes a permanent place in reader’s hearts. That is the most special thing of all about Lally’s book, the idea that we can all be accepted and loved for being ourselves.