Lucy Sweeney Byrne
Travelling is synonymous with escape. We are drawn to far-flung places by the promise of something new, of something different. Imbued with a romanticised exoticism, new locations possess the potential for adventure and enlightenment. Rarely do we associate travelling with boredom and monotony. It seems impossible that Paris, or Mexico, or New York could all share the same dull drudgery from which we wish to escape; it seems impossible that Paris, or Mexico, or New York could all share the same version of ourselves.
In Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s debut collection of short stories, entitled Paris Syndrome, travel is the central theme that connects each story. “Lucy”, our ever-changing protagonist, wishes to escape the disappointments and regrets of her life in Ireland. Each story finds her in a new location – at the foot of Sartre’s grave in Paris, at the site of the Chernobyl disaster, on a boat in New York – with the persistent hope that these new places will instill a sense of vitality in her. Lucy seeks enlightenment from these environments, but what they leave her with is the hard reality that the self is inescapable.
Stripped of all its romanticism, Sweeney Byrne presents a world that is irrefutably mundane and ordinary. Nothing separates Lucy’s experiences in France or America or Ireland. The narratives drift listlessly from one location to the next, as though through a car window, and the reader is always subtly unsettled and uprooted. We are never quite able to pin down who or where we are in any scene. While most of the stories follow a similar pattern – a young Irish writer at a loose end in her life, travelling abroad in the hope of revitalising herself – divergences in each narrative lead to an overall reading experience that is strangely dreamlike.
Each story provides “hope for new opportunities and variety,” but Lucy – and the reader – are constantly confronted with a familiar ennui that forces us to look inward. There is not much action in the stories; instead they are filled with a languid longing for something profound, and the reader finds themselves searching for it as desperately as Lucy. Without a doubt, this book is repetitive, and at times its reflection of Lucy’s own tedious experience is all too strongly felt by the reader. At times I found myself flicking lethargically through the pages, waiting for something to happen.
However, what Sweeney Byrne does so skillfully is lure us into her world with entrancing narratives –somewhat similar to highway hypnosis – and then jolt us awake with sudden punches of sharp wit, gritty realism, and gorgeous linguistic play. An uneasy tension lurks in the background; sirens are a recurring presence that foretell danger, and this commandeers the reader’s attention at unexpected moments, and lifts us out of our stupor.
An achingly beautiful book, Sweeney Byrne perfectly expresses the quiet devastation that we all face in our everyday lives. Her stories stretch out like long summer days, restlessly filled with that universal yearning to belong to someone or somewhere.
Words: Hayley Car