Book Review - Breakdown

The Irish writer Cathy Sweeney’s short fiction has been widely praised, her prose likened to that of Samuel Beckett and Lydia Davis. Her blistering debut novel, Breakdown, displays an impressive economy of language as the middle-aged narrator leaves her husband and two children asleep in their suburban Dublin home. We learn their names but she remains anonymous, defined by her roles: mother and wife.

The woman’s unplanned escape from domesticity takes her on a train and ferry from Rosslare to Fishguard in Wales. Over the course of her 48-hour journey we learn of past trauma, artistic aspirations and the disappointments and infidelities she experienced during her marriage. It has been a prolonged unravelling – “‘Happily married’ is not suddenly replaced by ‘unhappily married’. There is a long interim period” – and she recognises that her departure will have lasting repercussions: “It is possible to step out of one life into another. But there is no going back.”

Written in short paragraphs and restrained prose, Sweeney’s book skewers a marriage that has outrun its course. Her tone alternates between melancholy, fury and humour: “The great love of my husband’s life was actually ‘the high moral ground’,” she observes at one point.

Sweeney also touches on Ireland’s repressive stereotyping of women and the worldwide climate catastrophe, which add to her narrator’s alienation. Toward the end of the book, the woman describes her fragmented sense of self as part of a wider malaise: “You think that it is you that is breaking down – your family, your community, your society – but it is the whole world, and the sadness I have been carrying around is about this new reality that nothing – not even nature – is immune from breaking down.”

Some of the protagonist’s callous acts – she subjects an injured hen to a slow death by drowning, for example – dilute our sympathy, and Sweeney’s overuse of lists is distracting, but otherwise this is a vivid portrait of a woman adrift.

Originally published by The Observer