The revenge of the Mother

The revenge of the Mother

An unsettlingly real account of motherhood, and how traditional narratives of it have historically suffocated women

Cathy Sweeney’s debut novel, Breakdown, is an unsettling account of motherhood and its claws suffocating women. Written in 210 pages over 10 parts, each section marks the gradual mobility of the protagonist away from the traditional structures defining a woman, starting from the reclamation of her body since childhood.

The story begins with ‘Mothers are not supposed to go on road trips’—a rule clear enough to not be questioned, or broken. The 52-year-old protagonist wakes up to see her husband completing another leg of sleep “deeply satisfied with his life, his great wife and kids, his comfortable home and successful career”.

She prepares herself on a Tuesday morning in November while her two children are asleep—Lauren, a rebellious college student, in the attic; Mark, a sportsman at his school, in his room. She ignores her day’s work at the school as an art teacher, and starts her car.

She proceeds beyond the Dublin suburbs, where they stay, and finds herself winding to her natal home. Forty eight hours after her disappearance, she comes face-to-face with her action as she finds herself in a cottage in Wales. A breakdown was inevitable.

Sweeney writes with an ease that sweeps the reader in from the very first page. The sparseness of prose and the sombre atmosphere she paints is akin to Michael Cunningham’s 2023-pandemic novel Day. Like him, she allows the character to reveal the cold, freezing space, how time stops around them, and lives unfold, only to remind them of their broken homes.

“In the side mirror, a line of red tail-lights snake all the way back to the house where three people are still sleeping.” Sweeney holds the reader close to her writing by compact descriptions of the woman’s travels around Ireland—her rendezvous with strangers, the drinks she shares in bars, the meals she guzzles alone in convenience stores, and the “gold in the vast blackness” of the Welsh village where her “pebbledash cottage” waits for her. Sweeney builds contemporary Ireland and Wales through advertisements of sustainable Europe and organic coffee, news headlines of Brexit, and old men distributing religious cards that say, ‘Be Aware of God’s Terms and Conditions.’

The atmosphere blends well with the emotionally sick and frustrated protagonist. Like Kafka’s characters that are in search of meaning to survive, Sweeney’s protagonist too finds herself seeking the meaning to years of her Sisyphean struggle, of having to always practise a forced altruism, of engaging with talks of care and home essentials, of holding on to a job and arranging creches. She finds herself in a circle leading nowhere until she breaks from it and goes on the road trip.

Seeing the same circle reproduce itself in the lives of passengers and onlookers, she remembers the family she’d left behind. Motherhood and pulls of conscience tug at her, but she begins smoking (a habit she left when she got married), sleeping with a stranger to resist them.

A rebellion seems to have engulfed her very being. Through the travel, she begins to see the uselessness of her existence up to that point.

Motherhood holds an important place for the protagonist. She constantly revisits the abortion she had to undergo at 19, and the two grown-up children she’s dropped yet again with her escape. She remembers her mother asking her to forget about the abortion, and then reminding her when she’s in a clinic suffering from dementia. She witnesses a motherhood that she doesn’t know what to do with. Annie Ernaux’s I Remain in Darkness rings through Sweeney’s prose—that her mother is now in a similar darkness as she is; the darkness of “being called a large cat or an old sheep or a female dog”.

Sweeney explores the cruelties of motherhood making scenes tense with the protagonist’s indecision and angst. She delves into the cultural making of maternity for woman and its fanatical manifestation as apparent in the character.

While Sweeney’s novel plays with lost time and acts of rebellion too well, it fails to clearly articulate to the reader the motivations and thoughts of the protagonist. The series of interesting conflicts unleashed by the protagonist seem to have been left unattended by the author. More often than not, she let the radical vision of motherhood lie bare without stringing them into a cohesive narrative.

Sweeney’s novel, nonetheless, deserves larger attention. It is a slow-burn act of revolution written with empathy and stirring observation. It is smart, urgent and entertaining at the same time.

The New Indian Express