Book Review – Wunderland by Caitríona Lally

Wunderland by Caitríona Lally is a wonderfully conjured portrait of two siblings, each with their own quirks and each struggling with life in their own way. Roy has been swiftly and quietly exiled to Germany, after some rumoured scandal back home in Ireland, to work in Hamburg’s miniature model railway world. Gert, one of his sisters, decides to visit him, with the aim of getting to the bottom of what led to this exile. What follows is a darkly funny and poignant exploration of people somehow living on the fringes, struggling to move forward easily in life, and who feel exasperated by the way the majority seem to live so unburdened.

In Roy and Gert, Lally has created two brilliant characters who, at surface level, seem extremely different but as the novel progresses small similarities do begin to emerge. Roy: meticulous, obsessed with order, clarity, functionality, man of few words, socially awkward, and presented from the beginning as not quite fitting in. Gert:  practical, robust, bustling, no-nonsense and delightful in her criticism of the more frivolous elements of everyday society. Her bewilderment at the lingo of fashion magazines had me in stitches (and occasionally nodding in agreement, truth be told). 

Roy’s ‘figurine liberation’ is a darkly comical and central element of the story; this miniature world that so fascinates him is the one place where Roy does have control, and is a place where he can take out his grievances with the real world, and the people in it; scenes are reordered as seen fit, according to Roy’s own particular logic, and wrongdoers – those who look too happy, landscapes that seem too perfect, and let’s not forget those omnipresent peeping toms – are punished without mercy, providing many laugh-out-loud moments for readers.

The novel unfolds in alternating perspective chapters, Gert’s chapters told in first person narrative, Roy’s in third; reflecting how, in a way, the true workings of Roy’s mind remain elusive, to both Gert and to us readers. We get a much deeper insight into Gert’s train of thought; she has come to check up on her brother but is also running from her own problems at home. Lally explores the effects of mental health issues within a household, and on a marriage, with both sensitivity and insight. While Roy and Gert are so different in most ways, the key essential similarity that manifests itself in different ways is their wonder and anxiety at how life seems to go so smoothly for other people; a poignant and heartbreaking, yet ultimately too often relatable, reflection. As the novel progresses, we feel deeply for Gert; the pressure of navigating difficult relationships with unpredictable personalities, and the regret she harbours at the way she has handled difficult events, have left her in a state of complete burnout. We also feel for Roy; a character who finds social interactions and people in general completely trying, choosing to mainly withdraw, but who occasionally drops this facade to show a deep desire to reconnect with his family, and even some others around him. Lally’s exploration of sibling dynamics illuminates how the frustration and irritation at how another can possibly be the way they are is often still underpinned by some deep running bond, and a deep-seated desire to better understand the other. 

Despite the sombre themes explored in this novel – mental health, depression, suicide, social exile, the inability to express ourselves or connect with others, and burnout – there is so much humour within these pages; from the everyday moments of Roy’s hilarious meddling with his miniature world and his idiosyncratic trains of thought, to Gert’s well-observed and grumbling views of society, and her husband Allen’s highly unique entrepreneurial business ideas. 

I loved Lally’s writing style; so sharp and witty, seemingly taking delight in everything from the great detail in which the miniature train world is described, to the amusing tangents her characters’ trains of thought take. The chapters are headed with significant literal and proper translations from German into English, reflecting Roy’s obsessive interest in language, labels, categorisation, the meaning of words, and the ability to expression things logically and clearly; the need to label to make sense of things is also reflected in Gert’s home-life. 

Despite the darkness and sadness in some of the main themes explored, Wunderland is a captivating, darkly humorous and delightful read.

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Book 2 reviewed as part of the #20BooksOfSummer22 reading challenge hosted by Cathy at 746books.com

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Caitríona Lally was the recipient of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature (2018) and a Lannan Fellowship for Fiction (2019). In October 2021, she was announced as the inaugural Rooney Writer Fellow at Trinity Long Room Hub. Her first novel, Eggshells, was published in the US by Melville House (2017) and in the UK by Borough Press (2018). Caitríona lives in Dublin and divides her time between her young children, writing and working in the housekeeping department at Trinity College Dublin. Wunderland is her second novel.

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