Off the Shelf; Life Sentences
By Billy O’Callaghan
Jonathan Cape Pub. ISBN 978 178 733 2447 220 pp. 2021 Review by Terry Kenneally
Life Sentences is the second book this writer has read of Cork-born Billy O’Callahan, but the first reviewed in the OhioIANews. The first, My Coney Island Baby, put O’Callaghan on the map as an Irish writer. Booker Award winning author John Banville says, “One of our finest writers… and this is his best book yet.”
Told from the perspective of three members of one family, this historical fictional novel is a masterpiece of literary fiction. Presented in three parts, beginning with Jer (Jeremiah) Martin, who we meet drinking to quench a murderous rage he is nursing toward his brother-in-law, Ned Spillane, who has pushed his beloved sister Mamie to an untimely death with his boozing and shiftlessness. Jer’s memories of his sister are all tied with his own sense of shattered identity: his birth in the workhouse, the room corner where he was reared, his biological father who’s never publicly acknowledged him, and his loss of religious faith on the battlefields of the Great War.
Part II of Life Sentences takes a step back to 1911 to allow Nancy Martin, Jer’s mother, to narrate the story of her young womanhood. Nancy Martin leaves Clear Island to make a life for herself in Cork, laboring on farms and domestic work, where she meets Michael Egan, a footloose and fancy-free man who sweeps Nancy off her feet with his flirting and gets her pregnant.
Much to Nancy’s chagrin, she hears that Egan’s engaged and about to marry another woman with whom he’s also had a child. Nancy is forced to put her child, Mamie, in the workhouse. Nancy descends into prostitution to use the only commodity she owns, her body, to stay alive.
Part III is narrated in 1982 by Nellie, the youngest children of Jer. This section deals at length with a surreptiously arranged midnight burial of Nellie’s unbaptized baby, conceived outside of marriage. We discover in the acknowledgements that follow the closing section that the novel’s family history is based on the author’s own forebears.
Life Sentences is a thoroughly realized treatise on the familial ramifications that haunt us. The desperate plight of the O’Callaghan’s characters springs vividly from the pages thanks to his accomplished prose. O’Callaghan is a wonderful storyteller who molds his characters so that the reader believes in their plight. I can’t wait to see what he delivers next. I rate Life Sentences a TOP SHELF read.