Wunderland, by Caitríona Lally, New Island, 278 pp, €14.95, ISBN: 978-1848408050
From the moment the curtain goes up in Caitríona Lally’s second novel, we enter what feels like an alternate universe, which we inhabit until the last page. If you’ve read her Rooney-prize-winning Eggshells, you’ll know that hers is a particular type of prose, a prose that is never pedestrian, analysing words you never thought about before: “the word fine is a curse of a word … it doesn’t tell you anything about what you wanted to know”. You’ll also recognise that Lally’s invented characters are singular, quirky, and often slightly off-spectrum.
Roy and Gert are Irish siblings and the story takes place over six days when Gert visits her brother in Hamburg, where he works at Miniatur Wunderland – a museum filled with miniature tableaux, dominated by a model railway. Roy is curating his own collection in his wardrobe at home – “Wardrobe Wunderland” – which he fills daily with items he has swiped from the scenes whilst “cleaning”. It’s an exacting task: he has to name the figurines and create birth certs for each one, trying to guess from their clothes what the parents’ occupations were. One, Jonas, “had the bang of an orphan about hi”’ so didn’t get parents put on his cert. Gert had moved her brother to this job in Hamburg “for bad reasons” after “an ill-advised friendship with a teenager”. The exact nature of the incident never becomes entirely clear.
The narrative switches between third-person accounts from Roy, and first-person accounts from Gert, the chapters organised into the six days of the sibling reunion. For a non-German speaker, the German words or phrases that open each chapter are fascinating – I found myself entranced by the way the language has such specific terms for concepts like “sweet tooth”: die Naschkatze = a cat that likes to eat sweets = sweet tooth; or um den Brei herumreden = talk around the hot porridge = beat around the bush. I also learnt that German nouns are always capitalised.
Roy is as odd as they come, and his chapters, where we get inside his head, make for disquieting reading. He doesn’t welcome Gert’s visit – it interrupts his OCD world of dealing with both Wunderlands – both act work and in his wardrobe. As the book progresses, his casual stealing from the exhibits moves on to wanton destruction. He smashes a clown’s face in from a child’s birthday party, rips the child off her standpoint and flings her face-first into the swimming pool. His surges of anger around details of the tableaux intensify and we wonder where it will all end. There’s a creepy sense of a serial killer in the making as his hatred of the figurines becomes more and more intense. The serial destruction of the scenes has not gone unnoticed in the museum and a meeting is called to discuss it.
Gert’s chapters make for easier reading. At home she’s left her two children with her suicidal, depressed husband, Allen, who has had several self-harming episodes and has also told her he’s fallen out of love with her, feeling he was “missing out”. Her reply – “Fuck’s sake, we’re all missing out … You don’t see me getting the ride off Matt Damon, do you?” is typical of her dry wit, which shines through in her monologues, even though her middle years are proving stressful and disappointing. The visit to Hamburg to check on her exiled brother is a box she needs to tick in the “Subbuteo game of family issues”: the time is right as there is a lull in her husband’s mental torment and she feels it’s safe to leave him in charge of the kids.
Her efforts to connect with Roy are excruciating, with his moods that “go up like a cloud and down like a brick” and his constant analysis of her words and phrases. It’s clear he doesn’t want her there, and when she arrives he avoids spending time with her, leaving her to wander around the city on her own, all the time ruminating about her home life, while observing her surroundings: “The lines I made through Hamburg were hazy and warped”, as she walks up and down streets near Roy’s flat to complete some “ground cover”. Looking for a bin to toss her chewing gum into, the different slots on the Germanically prescribed bins daunt her “to hell and back” so she pockets the used gum in frustration.
The two very different voices in the book make for engrossing page-turning and as the curtain prepares to descend on the story, the chapters get shorter and shorter, building up to the finale and adding to the tension – Gert hopelessly mithered and Roy spinning out of control, but for the first time it seems, united as siblings with a common aim.
Susan McKeever is an editor, writer and ghostwriter for several Irish and international publishers and authors. She works from her home in Dublin’s Portobello.