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Paris Syndrome by Lucy Sweeney Byrne

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Article by E.R. Murray ©.
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Paris Syndrome is Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s debut collection, and the first book published by Banshee Press. The eleven auto-fictional stories transport us to a variety of intriguing locations, including Paris, Mexico, Havana, and Donegal, as a twenty-something female protagonist seeks escape and meaning through travel and human interaction.

The landscapes and settings create vivid backdrops that are integral to the stories and weave seamlessly with the narrative – though don’t expect romanticism. These stories evoke realistic travel, with all its hope, quiet devastation, boredom, pleasures, and dangers. The opening story, ‘That Sinking Feeling’, perfectly sets the tone as staff on board a boat moored in Brooklyn rebel against their boss, and from there, the reader is taken on an emotional ride that crosses oceans to reveal the intricacies of human nature.

Always, the main character is an outsider – uprooted, unsettled, and searching – and as a reader, we experience both the torment of wanting to belong, yet the freedom that being on the outside can allow. A particular strength of each story is that the situations presented are so completely unexpected, the reader has no idea where they will be taken to next, or what they will encounter. This creates a dreamy realism that mirrors the theme of travel underpinning the collection, but also generates an exploratory pace and tone that keeps the reader turning the page.

The collection also plays with form, and this playfulness brings a freshness to the voice, so although the stories have a similar starting point to their narrative – the restless search for something more – they are far from repetitive. One of my personal favourites is ‘Montparnasse’, which is astute, wry, and incredibly funny. Set in a Parisian graveyard, we experience the protagonist’s excruciating inability to feel what she expected, or is expected of her, at Sartre’s grave. Cringe-worthy in its realness, this story perfectly highlights the mastery of Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s ability to dig deep into the human psyche.

Although travel is a central theme, this book examines wider issues such as loss, fear, loneliness, escapism, desperation, desire, and self-worth. But the collection is far from misery lit; the characters may be lost and seeking, may make questionable decisions and sometimes opt for the less-than-valiant choice, but they are always aware of their own misgivings, of their own power and frailties. Something I really admire is that the protagonist consistently takes responsibility for her actions and is completely self aware; this is what makes the collection so relatable.

All impressive is the acute attention to detail, especially to the mundane and unmentionable, without these details ever feeling gratuitous or unnecessary. Relationships are handled beautifully and by bringing the reader into the minutiae of everyday life, we get to experience the intense highs and lows of the characters involved.

‘They were happy, she thinks. They were. As happy as two separate, wrapped up in skins, trying to reach across, to build a life for two, together, can be.’ ‘Zeno’s Paradox’

I feel like brave is a word that’s often over-used in book reviews, but it’s truly difficult to describe this writing as anything other. Perhaps fearless would be more exact? Sharp, insightful, funny; the whole collection is so believable, so astute, that at times it’s easy to forget that you’re reading fiction. Overall, Paris Syndrome is an exciting and accomplished read, and I’m genuinely interested to see what both Lucy Sweeney Byrne and Banshee Press publish next.

(c) E.R. Murray

Order your copy online here.

Please note: The launch of Paris Syndrome by Lucy Sweeney Byrne is on Thursday September 12th in Hodges Figgis, Dawson St, Dublin 2 at 6pm. All welcome.