1920 – The first story we read is that of Jer (Jerimiah). A man who, born in dire poverty in an Irish workhouse, has gone on to fight in the trenches of WWI and raise a family of six children with his beloved wife Mary. Jer is a man who has regrets, and he sometimes questions his place in the world.
“The most anyone could ask for was survival, and whether those who succeeded in that counted as fortunate or accursed was a call each one of us had to make for ourselves.”
1911 – Secondly, we read the harrowing story of Nancy, Jer’s mother. Born in 1852 on Cape Clear Island on the west coast of Ireland, she was orphaned at sixteen and left for the mainland. Completely alone, she did what she had to to survive. Just a few years after the devastating potato famine, Nancy, who is illiterate, finally secures work at a ‘big’ house as a maid. There she meets and falls in love with gardener Michael Egan who steals her innocence and naivety by impregnating her when, unknown to her, he is already betrothed to someone else. Nancy’s story is one of selflessness, desperation, malnourishment, and destitution, and is very difficult to read.
1982 – Thirdly, we read of Jer’s daughter Nellie, when she herself is a grandmother. Terminally ill, Nellie reflects back on her strong family and those who have come before…
“We’re most of us who we are because of the things we suffer through.”
Told from perspectives of three members of one family, this historical fiction novel was a masterpiece of literary fiction.
Wow! Kudos to Billy O’Callaghan who has left me verklempt and with a headache from weeping.
The desperate plight of his characters springs vividly from the page via his accomplished prose. His writing flows smoothly and with such empathy and understanding that you are completely immersed in the narrative.
The novel speaks to the social injustices prevalent in Ireland in years past. It is also a story of Irish Catholic heritage and the strong bond between siblings, as well as that between parent and child.
Highly recommended to those who like to read realistic, well-researched historical fiction.
Author’s afterword: “What’s here in ‘Life Sentences’ is a skin of fiction laid over a considerable amount of fact and truth drawn from things I’d been told over the years. For a lot of the rest, I relied on the research done by Yann and my sister, Irene.
This review was written voluntarily and my rating was in no way influenced by the fact that I received a complimentary digital copy of this novel at my request from Jonathan Cape/Vintage/Random House UK via NetGalley.
ISBN: 9781787332447 – ASIN: B087R1126G – 288 pages
Billy O’Callaghan was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1974, and is the author of three short story collections: ‘In Exile’ (2008) and ‘In Too Deep’ (2009), both published by Mercier Press, and ‘The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind’ (2013) published by New Island Books, which won a Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award and which is forthcoming in a Chinese translation from CITIC Press in the summer of 2017. His first novel was “The Dead House” and his novel “My Coney Island Baby” was published by HarperCollins and is available now. His stories have been broadcast nationally on RTÉ Radio’s ‘The Book on One’, Sunday Miscellany and the Francis MacManus Awards series, and have appeared in more than 100 magazines and literary journals around the world.
Follow Billy O’Callaghan on Twitter.