Cover Image: Life Sentences

Life Sentences

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EXCERPT: Nancy (1868)
When I was a child, my mother often told me that we'd been a hundred generations on Clear Island, one branch or another of us, and on the day the last one of us left, the island would sink out of grief to the bottom of the sea. And at sixteen, as I sat in the prow of the Sullivan brothers' boat, wanting more than anything to risk a backward glance, those words kept me afraid. For the entire crossing, my mother's voice sang loud inside me and so truthful sounding that, had I turned my head, I felt sure I'd see the cliffs crumbling in on themselves and their blankets of gorse and heather flushing the stony grey water with shades of pink and gold. And worse still, that there'd be scatterings of my dead watching after me from the strand, thin-shouldered and forlorn, knowing I'd never return, that this was the end.

ABOUT 'LIFE SENTENCES': At just sixteen, Nancy leaves the small island of Cape Clear for the mainland, the only member of her family to survive the effects of the Great Famine. Finding work in a grand house on the edge of Cork City, she is irrepressibly drawn to the charismatic gardener Michael Egan, sparking a love affair and a devastating chain of events that continues to unfold over three generations. Spanning more than a century, Life Sentences is the unforgettable journey of a family hungry for redemption, and determined against all odds to be free.

MY THOUGHTS: The Dead House by Billy O'Callaghan was one of my top five reads of 2018. So I looked forward to Life Sentences with great anticipation. It's not that I didn't like it, because I did. I didn't love it.

There is a family tree at the beginning of the book which helps to make sense of it all. This is the author's own family, and Billy is the 'Bill, who's seven now' of the extract, son of Liam O'Callaghan and Gina Murphy.

The book (not the story, the book) begins in 1920 with Jer drowning his sorrows at the death of his sister, Mamie. We learn Jer's story in the first third of the book, his service in WWI, his love for his wife and children, the poverty, the desperation.

The narrative then moves back in time to the 1800s, and we learn Nancy's story. After the famine and the death of all her family, she leaves the island of Clear and moves to the mainland, where after living as an itinerant picking up seasonal farm work, she falls into a job in service. It is here she meets Michael Egan the man who will father her two children but will never be her husband.

Finally we get Nellie's story, Jer's daughter and Billy's grandmother.

Quite why it was written in this format, I don't know. It didn't add to the appeal. For a while there I thought that somehow I had downloaded the wrong book. Although Life Sentences is a scant 250 pages, it is a long story. In the author's notes, Billy O'Callaghan writes: '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.'

Although the writing is quite beautiful and lyrical in places, in others it just dully recounts events, some of them quite horrific, in the history of this family. It probably is heart-rending, all the more so because of the truth of it, but I was left unmoved, and I don't know why.


#LifeSentences #NetGalley

'When the night turns still, what keeps us awake, what haunts us, are the things we've done more so than the things we've had done to us.'

'Hell might be the ceaseless repetition of who we are in our lowest moments, with our mistakes, the ones that have defined our lives, playing over and over...'

'Nobody dies, not really, not when their same blood runs through ever younger bones.'

THE AUTHOR: Billy O’Callaghan is an Irish short fiction writer and author. He was born in Cork in 1974, and grew up in Douglas village, where he still resides.

DISCLOSURE: Thank you to Random House UK, Vintage via Netgalley for providing a digital ARC of Life Sentences by Billy O'Callaghan for review. All opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own personal opinions.

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This is a powerful, well written book far removed from the standard 'family saga'.  It begins with Jer, born out of wedlock in Ireland, growing up in poverty and in the workhouse, becoming a soldier.  We join him when he is railing against the husband of his sister, who has died.  

The story then takes up with his mother Nancy; perhaps the most powerful story.  Nancy was born at the end of the potato famine, and as a result leaves her village to work, eventually ending up with a miserable old woman where she meets a real chancer, Michael Egan.  The intertwining of their lives has serious consequences for the rest of Nancy's life.  We follow her slide into the workhouse, the birth of her children.  

The final character I found less convincing; I wonder if we only followed her because of the powerful description of her early marriage and events.  There seemed such a gap, having gone back in time with Nancy to be suddenly jerked to the time of Jer's daughter, with many past events glossed over.  

Overall a powerful novel of Ireland in the nineteenth and twentieth century, which paints a picture of lives in a most convincing and heart rending manner.

Thank you to NetGalley, Random House UK, Vintage and Jonathan Cape for allowing me access to the ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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Life Sentences tells the story of three generations of the O’Callaghan family, based on true accounts, from the 1850s to the 1980s. It opens with Jer, mourning the early death of his sister Mamie after years of abuse from her drunken husband. The narrative shifts back in time to their mother, Nancy. Born just after the famine, she leaves the island of Clear and moves to Cork, her family all dead. She is seduced by Michael Egan and ends up in the workhouse with her two children. And so it goes on.

It is a long and unrelenting story of miserable poverty, hard work and bare survival. It’s miserable to read, too, despite often lyrical prose.

You can tell that this novel was a labor of love, as O’Callaghan pieced together his family’s stories and legends. It is movingly recounted; I’m sure many would call it a tearjerker. But it left me pretty much unmoved. I can almost hear a voice say, in a good Irish accent, “Sure ye’d have to have a heart o’ stone” not to be moved by this story. And therein lies the problem. It’s like one of those Irish ballads that are terribly moving when you’re drunk, and just mawkish drivel the next morning when you’re going about your business. Maybe it's just me, and I am hard-hearted.

Neither history nor historical fiction
To say this is “Irish history” (as I’ve seen in some reviews) really rubs me up the wrong way. It’s no more Irish history than the story of three generations of hillbillies in the US could purport to be American history. It’s one, very poor family, who unfortunately didn’t seem to have the wherewithal to pull themselves out of poverty, as many other families did (and as, probably, other branches of O’Callaghan’s family did). No doubt there is much truth in the narrative, and many families suffered as the author’s ancestors did. But it is merely a thin sliver of Irish history, a glimpse of a few sad lives, seen in isolation without reference to the backdrop of historical progress.

My feelings about this book are very similar to how I felt on reading Angela’s Ashes years ago. Maybe it’s pride: I was born in Ireland and lived there till my teens, and it’s irritating to see these clichés of Auld Ireland being paraded as history. This book is memoirs, based on [unreliable] family stories of events long past, fictionalized into a coherent narrative. More poetry even than history.

Although I have classified this book in my blog as ‘historical fiction’, I think it only barely earns its place there. Ideally, historical fiction should enlighten you about an era in history and provide insights into historical events and developments. This doesn’t.

If you’re looking for misery lit…
You might well ask “Well, what were you expecting? Doesn’t the publisher’s blurb describe it as ‘the sweeping and immersive story of one ordinary family in Ireland, and their extraordinary journey over three generations and more than a century of famine, war, violence and love’?” Well, yes, it does and it’s not untrue. And I do love historical fiction that gets right down into the daily domestic details of life, making you feel that you are in the thick of the story with the characters, rather than merely observing. But I feel that this book missed the mark. The historical backdrop is hazy, barely mentioned in passing. The domestic details failed to pull me in. In short, I didn’t find it immersive, although I can imagine that some readers would.

If you loved Angela’s Ashes and similar, you’ll probably enjoy Life Sentences. It’s well written and satisfyingly miserable if that’s what you’re looking for. For me, it’s a lesson to steer clear of the misery lit genre in the future — I just find it irritating. Even hardcore miserable fiction should include at least some element of redemption and uplift. Life Sentences doesn’t.
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‘Life Sentences’ is penned with such beautifully crafted phrases, that it could have come from the hand of a gifted poet. In addition, it’s a wonderful depiction of Irish history that covers three generations of one family.

This is a novel about family, famine, war, poverty, love, and loss, and it also touches on the all consuming power that the Church had on these small Irish communities, with one scene in particular that I found really moving, where a ‘man of the cloth’, a servant of God no less, treated a grieving family in a most diabolical and uncaring manner, and in reality it was a doctrine that shamed the Church. Within these pages are events that most of us will recognise, because when it comes right down to it, this novel is about life, its ups and its downs, and it demonstrates yet again how powerful human endurance can be. 

So I’ve turned the last page, another book finished, the characters left behind for someone else to read about, but there are scenes and characters that I will never quite leave behind, and nor would I want to.
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Life Sentences is a beautifully written novel about three generations of the same Irish family, and the hardships they have faced. From famine, poverty and the horrors of war, this book looks at how human endurance can overcome the most adverse situations and how our lives have changed for the better in many ways. The importance of family, love and support shines through in this book even though the general tone is dour. Another fantastic read from a brilliant author.
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Billy O'Callaghan paints a picture of the grim horrors and realities of almost a century of Irish history, the starvation that resulted in large part of the population to Britain and the USA, the great famine, of faith, church and religion, social attitudes and norms, the position of women in this period, and impact of war, related through his extraordinary non-linear depiction of three generations of an ordinary Irish family. This is thinly veiled fiction that draws on O'Callaghan's family stories and research that begins with Jer (Jeremiah) a soldier who had fought and suffered in the Great War, spending a night in a police cell reflecting on his life, family and the past, raging over the death of his beloved sister, Mamie, a death hastened by the violence, drink and stresses of her husband, Ned Spillane. He wishes that he hadn't followed his mother, Nancy's pleas to leave well alone and not get involved in Mamie's domestic circumstances, even as she withered away, her life force draining away in front of their eyes, this is how things were at the time.

The narrative then shifts to Nancy, her devastatingly hard life, the only surviving member of her family, forced to leave her home on Clear Island to escape to Douglas, near Cork, ending up employed as a maid to Mrs McKechnie. Despite her poverty and travails, Nancy seeks love, tenderness and kindness, such natural human desires, in the gardener Michael Egan, feelings that persist even when he betrays and leaves her, pregnant and in despair, destined for the workhouse, where she gives birth to Mamie, and then later, Jer. Nancy turns her focus and energies on the needs of her children, learning to survive in a unforgiving community and church that judges unmarried mothers harshly, she must do what women in her position have to do just to barely survive, feeling shame, but her children need to eat. In 1982, Nellie, Jer's youngest daughter is dying, living in a council house close to her old family home with her daughter, Gina, surrounded by ghosts that stay close as she dreams of the past

There is a strong sense of melancholy that runs through the narrative, along with a stoicism, the worst can happen, you may well be broken, but you have to pick yourself up, put one foot in front of the other, learn to walk into a future and a world indifferent to all the troubles, bereavements, violence and horrors that bruise and devastate. Throughout it all, there are glimpses, memories of joy and love, whilst getting on with the bitter business of surviving, the strong familial relationships, family bloodlines, the circles of life and death, a family that personifies and is Ireland's history come alive, a past that is inextricably part of today, haunting the present. This is beautiful storytelling, barely disguised truths of Ireland, authentic characterisations that resonate, heartbreaking, yet speaking of the indomitable nature of the human spirit to survive. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Random House Vintage for an ARC.
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Life Sentences by Billy O’Callaghan is a story three generations of one family between 1920’s to 1982. Set off an island near Cork in Ireland Nancy leaves the small island that she has grown up on that starts a whole heap of events. From working in a grand house where she meets Michael Eagan that sets her life up from having his illegitimate children, working in the workhouse and when her soldier fighting in the great war. 
I always like fiction set in Ireland and this is no exception. It is beautifully written heartfelt story of one families joy and hardships and abandonment. The only thing that was a problem for me is the author sometimes transitioned from one character to the next without no break, so I got confused who the story who they are referring to. Maybe I am nit picking. You will have to read it yourself to find out.
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Ein wunderbares Buch das direkt ins Herz trifft. In dieser Familiengeschichte über drei Generationen wird klar was Familie sein kann. Ein liebevolles, manchmal brutal ehrliches Buch.
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