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Breakdown: A modern cautionary tale about the costs of limiting our options to suffocating roleplay

Through her precise observations, Sweeney builds a case against everything – modern life, marriage, technology, capitalism, self-delusion, the whole lot

Author: Cathy Sweeney
ISBN-13: 978-1474618519
Publisher: W&N
Guideline Price: £18.99

The opening pages of Cathy Sweeney’s debut novel are among the most arresting I have ever read. A nameless, middle-aged woman wakes up in her middle-class home in suburban Dublin and comes to the conclusion that she cannot go on. Sweeney’s description of the woman’s day ahead as “carved in marble” is excruciatingly exact. She itemises her day: “Get up. Get ready for work at a local secondary school. Make sure son is up. Drink coffee. Let the cat out. Drop son to school. Drive to work…” and on and on it goes until the day finally ends with: “Finish bottle of wine. Turn on TV in bedroom. Fall asleep.” Anyone whose life is trammelled by the twin tracks of routine and mundanity will find this sequence almost offensively accurate.

On the morning in question, the woman gets up and instead of following her daily routine, she drives to Wexford without a plan, takes the ferry to Fishguard, and eventually rents a rundown cottage in Wales. Her husband is dumbfounded by her departure and her two grown children continue to text her requests to buy milk or to give them lifts.

The beginning of the book is so enthralling that I wondered how Sweeney would maintain the tension, but she deftly sidesteps the issue by taking an anti-drama approach. Sweeney painstakingly follows the woman’s journey, both literal and metaphorical, as she tries to excavate herself from the rubble of her married life.

The story moves back and forth in time, from the present-day in the Welsh cottage, to those two weeks the woman spent on the run from her own life and further back in time to the beginning of her relationship with her husband, her relationship with her late mother, and ultimately her relationship with herself.


Breakdown is Sweeney’s debut novel, following the publication of an acclaimed collection of short stories, Modern Times, in 2020. Sweeney grew up in Greystones, Co Wicklow, and worked as a teacher for many years before turning to writing in her thirties.

The concept of a woman becoming dissatisfied with her life in middle-age is not new – “the story of how a woman becomes a teacher and not an artist is an old one” – but this book feels radically contemporary, perhaps because Sweeney’s protagonist never seems to feel guilt or remorse for leaving her family.

While on the surface the book is about the fallout of women stifling their personal desires in order to fulfil their roles as wives or mothers, Sweeney roams far and wide over larger political territory, taking in everything from the Irish obsession with money to the sanitisation of language in order to minimise women’s traumatic experiences.

Through her precise observations, Sweeney builds a case against everything – modern life, marriage, technology, capitalism, self-delusion, the family, gender expectations, ambition, respectability, Irishness, the whole lot.

Surprisingly, this lends itself to humour. The book is full of brilliant quips like: “On some level he still loved me, as I loved him. But the great love of my husband’s life was actually the high moral ground.” Or “There was a moment, in the early hours, when our bodies nearly had sex before our brains remembered the situation. Some sort of baggage reclaim instinct.”

In other places, the story feels relentlessly grim, as the woman pushes on, placeless and alone, with sodden feet, on the run from respectable womanhood but still seeming to yearn for the safe haven it provided. The breakdown of the title refers not only to the woman’s personal breakdown but to the breakdown of society, climate, civilisation that the woman sees around her, which adds a nihilistic undertone.

At 278 pages, Breakdown is not a long novel and its language is bare, but almost every paragraph questions a societal norm, which in turn forces a slow and engaged reading. Our protagonist is no Shirley Valentine. She is not looking for some quick romance, or a temporary break from her boring life. She is, like many middle-aged women whose children have grown up and marriages stagnated, looking for herself.

“When a woman disappears, the chances are that she has been murdered by someone she knows, most likely her husband or her boyfriend or someone she has been having sex with. But women can disappear right in front of you,” she writes.

Breakdown is a striking debut from a highly original writer, and a thoroughly modern cautionary tale about the costs of limiting our options, and ourselves, to suffocating roleplay.

Edel Coffey

Edel Coffey

Edel Coffey, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a journalist and broadcaster. Her first novel, Breaking Point, is published by Sphere