Modern Times

Cathy Sweeney

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson 23 July 2020

160pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Alison Burns

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The Stinging Fly Press in Dublin is one of the best promoters of new fiction talent.  Writers such as Clare-Louise Bennett, Wendy Erskine, Colin Barrett and Kevin Barry have burst upon the literary scene with satisfyingly idiosyncratic stories for our times.

Cathy Sweeney is the latest from this stable, writing for the most part short, sharp tales of disillusion and ennui suffused with surreality.  Some of her fantasies are more playful than others (reading ‘Blue’, a story about adultery in which the characters and their landscapes turn blue, the reader may well feel, why not make up something like this) but all mix the fanciful with the banal in modern fairytale form. The results can be variously invigorating or dispiriting. At their best, they display a bracingly imaginative use of the absurd.

In ‘Flowers in Water’, Sweeney makes a whole story out of a man’s devotion to making invisible films.  When he watches these with his estranged daughter, you believe that they are seeing the same things.  In ‘The Woman Whose Child Was A Very Old Man’, a revolutionary and perfectly effective solution to childcare is suggested.  The married couple in ‘The Chair’ develop a routine that helps them to deal with their anger (Doris Lessing would have loved this one).  There are Carteresque fables about a wolf in the woods, a sickly palace, a crazy birthday party.  Characters long for second chances, settle for curious soothers (such as the dressed-down sex doll who keeps a widow company when her husband dies and her daughter leaves home for good), take illogicality as far as is necessary to keep them sane.

Things happen in Sweeney’s world ‘through the fumes of memory and out the other side of a dream’.  In the final bluesey story, in which ‘days rolled by like leaves’, the protagonist considers having a baby:‘The light was draining from the sky, and along the highway cat’s eyes blinked open, as rain spotted the windscreen.  At slow speed the wipers sounded like someone giving head.  Each time I looked, the clock had moved, until there was nothing left to think about.  Black road, red tail lights, and line after line of white.’

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