‘Mothers are not supposed to go on road trips’ – Breakdown
[ About Breakdown ]
One winter morning on an ordinary day in contemporary Dublin, an ordinary middle-class woman wakes up in her ordinary suburban home. Her husband is next to her in bed, her teenage children sleeping nearby. Without thinking much about it, she walks out the front door and never comes back.
She travels first by car, then train, then ferry. Along the way, she finds herself in service stations and shopping centres, hotel bars and hairdressers – and in the beds of strange men.
Finally, forty-eight hours later, alone in a cottage in Wales, the woman faces up to what she has been ignoring inside herself, her family, modern society: signs of breakdown.
From one of Ireland’s most provocative and admired writers, this is a story of rage and reckoning, joy and transformation.
[ My Review ]
Breakdown by Cathy Sweeney is out today (January 18th, 2024) with Weidenfeld & Nicolson and is described as ‘a novel about the rage and reckoning of a middle-aged, educated woman who has lived her life in accordance with the expectations of society’. Breakdown is a contemporary debut novel from the author of Modern Times, a short story collection, which garnered great praise from many, including Graham Norton, Sinéad Gleeson and Kevin Barry. This is a novel that stopped me in my tracks on multiple occasions as I weighed up what I had read, pondering on a phrase, a word, a chapter. There are many parts of this book that will resonate with many people as our narrator begins her journey from her comfortable suburban home in Dublin to a very remote cottage in Wales. This trip was unplanned. This journey was a split decision by a woman who had quite simply had enough.
She is an art teacher, married to a successful businessman and has two older teenagers, a boy and a girl. On the surface their marriage appears stable. Every member of the household does their own thing, with her daughter in college and her son almost finished with school. All their young lives, they have lacked nothing. Although working herself, their mother always made sure that food was on the table, lifts were available and their clothes washed and sorted. But she is very much off-kilter and has been for some time. Every day is the same. She repeats the same actions like a hamster on his wheel.
‘The day ahead is carved in marble. Get up. Get ready for work at a state-secondary school. Make sure son is up. Drink coffee. Let the cat out. Drop son to school. Drive to work. Teach class. Make small talk with colleagues. Pick up a bottle of wine on the way home. Make dinner. Pour wine. Tidy up. Put a wash on. Avoid row with daughter. Remind husband to contact his mother about her test results. Have bath. Mess around on phone. Finish bottle of wine. Turn on TV in bedroom. Fall asleep.’
Until early one Winter’s morning, she wakes up feeling different and makes a snap decision to just get dressed, grab her bag and her car keys and leave. No note. No explanation. Initially she thinks it will be for a few hours, maybe 24 hours maximum but what transpires is something very different indeed.
On this unmapped road away from her life, she takes a trip to Arklow, the town where she was born, reminiscing on days gone by. She sees the changes in the town, its jaded decline. She parks up at a nearby shopping centre and takes a moment to consider her next move. But that’s really the crux of the matter. She has no plan. Messages start to pop up on her phone from her family but she offers excuse after excuse. As the day passes the messages become more concerned, frustrated and angry. She becomes almost immune to them all. The further away she gets, the more she feels herself able to breathe again.
Unwittingly and very unexpectedly she finds herself in Rosslare with a vague plan to catch the boat to Wales. Within forty-eight hours her life alters dramatically as she scrutinises her life. She no longer recognises herself and who she has become.
Cathy Sweeney explores the deeper thoughts this woman has, as her internal monologue analyses decisions made and paths taken. With chapters focusing on the present and the future we begin to realise the seismic shift in her thinking and her lifestyle choices. Using short chapters, snippets of text messages and her own thoughts, as well as quite brief, but emotive, interactions with others along the way, we, as readers, are brought on an extraordinary journey.
Breakdown will resonate with many who live a life that fits in with societal expectations, with people whose lives took an unexpected path that was never supposed to be the end-goal. I have no doubt that many of us wake up some mornings imagining what if? What if our path had gone off in a completely different direction? What if we were really meant to be doing something else completely? Is there a better life elsewhere? Is the grass greener on the other side?
Breakdown is a novel that will get into your very soul. The styling of the writing and chapter layout is just perfect, leaving you quite emotionally wrung out and in a very contemplative mood. Breakdown is the story of a woman suffocating, unable to breathe, downtrodden with the weight of expectations that society has laid by her feet. Is she having an actual breakdown or is she breaking free? Well dear reader this really will be for you to decide. An exceptional, relatable and affecting tale, Breakdown is a compelling and challenging debut, one I have absolutely no qualms in recommending. Don’t miss this one!!
* Thank you so much to Elaine Egan of Hachette Ireland for gifting me a copy in exchange for my honest review.
[ Bio ]
Cathy Sweeney lives in Dublin. She studied at Trinity College and taught English at secondary level for many years before turning to writing. Her work has been published in various magazines and journals.