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.
‘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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