‘Three generations. More than a century of famine, war, violence and love.‘
– Life Sentences
[ About the Book ]
At sixteen Nancy, the only member of her family to survive the Great Famine, leaves her small island for the mainland. Finding work in a grand house on the edge of Cork City, she feels irrepressibly drawn to the charismatic gardener Michael Egan, sparking a love affair that soon throws her into a fight for her life.
In 1920, Nancy’s son Jer has lived through battles of his own as a soldier in the Great War. Now drunk in a jail cell, he struggles to piece together where he has come from, and who he wants to be.
And in the early 1980s, Jer’s youngest child Nellie is nearing the end of her life in a council house, moments away from her childhood home; remembering the night when she and her family stole back something that was rightfully theirs, she imagines what lies in store for those who will survive her.
[ My Review ]
Life Sentences by Billy O’ Callaghan was published in paperback with Vintage in January 2022. It is a book that immediately received great acclaim, with John Banville stating that ‘O’Callaghan is one of our finest writers, in the tradition of John McGahern and Brian Friel, and this is his best work yet.’
Being from Cork myself, Billy O’ Callaghan is familiar to me yet, for some unexplained reason, it is only recently that I picked up a copy of Life Sentences. To say I was blown away by Billy’s writing is an understatement. I have been to a few literary events this year where Billy O’ Callaghan was on the panel and he is first and foremost a gentleman but also a real pleasure to listen to. He is very modest about his work and it is clear that he is at his happiest when writing.
Life Sentences is loosely based on Billy O’ Callaghan’s own family history. His grandmother, Nellie, passed on the stories of the generations who preceded her, providing him with the basics to get started. With some research into his family tree, he was able to piece together some additional facts incorporating them into this significant and immersive tale that is truly a very special and remarkable book.
Life Sentences spans three generations and initially we are introduced to Jer, Nellie’s father. The year is 1920 and the world is trying to recover from The Great War. For those who survived the battlefields, the memories are forever present. It is the eve of Jer’s beloved sister’s funeral and Jer is angry, an anger fuelled by grief. Throughout these opening chapters we get an insight into Jer’s younger years, his marriage to his beloved wife Mary Carty and of course his years in the trenches.
“I tell her that while she has me we’ll be fine and will get through whatever comes, kissing her as I talk, her forehead and cheeks and shut eyes, and she turns her face upwards so that I can find her mouth and tries, as she always does, to be strong, knowing I mean everything I say but understanding too that it might not be enough” – Jer
Anyone who has read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks will recall the vividness of the horrors of war. Billy O’ Callaghan brings that same brutality to life with descriptions that are so authentic, you read them with a sense of absolute shock and revulsion. Jer is a gentle man, and his observations of his life to that point are skilfully recounted through the most gorgeous use of words that flow beautifully across the pages. There is a softness, a lilting edge to every sentence that just mesmerises and will fully capture the attention of any reader.
In the second part of Life Sentences, it’s 1911 and Nancy is about to share her story. Born in 1852 on Clear Island off the west Cork coast, Nancy left her birthplace at the age of nineteen, the last surviving member of her family. Starvation was rampant on the island so with no choice, Nancy knew she had to leave her beloved home and make her way to the city of Cork. She eventually got work in a house in Blackpool on the outskirts of Cork City. Working as a housemaid she was surprised to find love in the arms of the gardener, Michael Egan.
“Back on Clear Island, my mother had often told me that my voice was a leftover from long ago, when the world was still a beautiful place. Álainn agus cineálta – beautiful and good. My looks, such as they were, my still-young age and the music of my accent were what I had to offer, and although I feared the likes of me could be had ten a penny along the city docks of any wet night with a ship in port, I hoped that whatever had turned Michael Egan’s head would prove enough to keep him wanting” – Nancy
Nancy dreamed of a life filled with children and a stable home but this was not the path that was laid out for her and an unimaginable hardship was to be her future. My heart broke many times over reading Nancy’s story. The descriptions of Cork, the familiarity of all the streets and places brought Nancy’s story very much alive to me making it all the more heart-breaking and poignant.
The final part of Life Sentences is Nellie’s story. It’s 1982 and Nellie is reaching her final days. She looks back on a life that began in 1918, recalling her marriage to Dinsy Murphy and the challenges they faced as a young couple. She looks to the future imagining the life ahead for her daughter Gina with her husband Liam and she speaks of the love for her grandson Bill (Billy).
“Because when I look at him I see all of us reflected, traits of Gina and of Liam, his mother and father, and the rest of us too – my eyes in a certain light; strains of how my father lifted his head to speak or the delight that would square his shoulders whenever there was a chance to hear a story being told. He has just turned seven, with the best of living still to come, but he’s also all of our pasts combined. And because my own future has fallen short, it’s the years gone by that shine most clearly for me now.” – Nellie
Nellie’s story beautifully wraps up this outstanding book, one that Billy O’ Callaghan refers to as ‘a skin of fiction laid over a considerable amount of fact and truth drawn from things I’d been told over the years.‘ Life Sentences is more than I could have ever hoped for in a book. It is a compact read yet it is an epic read. It is written by a magician of words. This is not a happy read. These were not happy lives. Yet Billy O’ Callaghan captures the truth of life during those harsh years for the ordinary man and woman. A century sees a lot of change in any society but Billy O’ Callaghan manages to depict each era concisely while also keeping his focus on the lives of the individuals involved. There is so much pain in these pages, so much anguish yet also there is hope that life continues as the steadfast nature of the human spirit continues to thrive.
Life Sentences is an extraordinary and compelling read. It really is the sum of its parts, a combination of an emotive and personal story that resonates and the expressive and musical writing of this master storyteller.
[ Bio ]
Billy O’Callaghan is the author of the critically acclaimed novel My Coney Island Baby, which has been translated into nine languages and was shortlisted for the Encore Award 2020. Stories in his short-story collection The Boatman and Other Stories were shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award and for Writie.ie Short Story of the Year in the An Post Irish Book Awards.
He lives in Douglas, a village on the edge of Cork City.