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Family secrets: Life Sentences, by Billy O’Callaghan, reviewed

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

Life Sentences Billy O’Callaghan

Cape, pp.240, 14.99

Despite innovative work by younger writers, there remains a prominent strain in Irish literature of what we might call the ‘sad but nice’: tales of desperation elegantly unfolded, popularised by William Trevor and John McGahern and refined by Colm Tóibín and Mary Costello. A newcomer in this lane is Billy O’Callaghan, whose previous books have been so orgiastically praised by the Booker Prize winner and former literary editor of the Irish Times John Banville that I began to think O’Callaghan might be another of his pseudonyms.

And if there’s one feature in Irish novels that shouts louder — or with more forceful quietness — than others, it’s the family and its secrets. The driving principle behind O’Callaghan’s third novel is: ‘Without knowing who and where he comes from, a man is a mystery to himself.’ And it’s a personal project: Life Sentences traces his own family back to the 19th century through the voices of three ancestors.

Each person’s story centres on a decisive moment in their life. We start strongly with Jer, O’Callaghan’s great-grandfather, a violent man, former soldier, struggling with the death of his sister Mamie and his hatred of her surviving husband (‘I’d beat him into the ground. I’d butter the stones with him’). He repeatedly revisits his experiences in the first world war, but finds that memory is ‘just nourishment to pain’ (you can say that again, when his dominant mental image is a very effective scene of a fellow soldier being eaten alive by rats).

Then the story goes back to Jer’s mother Nancy and her courtship — more rape than romance — with a married man who fathers both Jer and Mamie. Nancy’s life is especially bleak, in and out of the workhouse and sliding towards the oldest profession, even if O’Callaghan lards it on a bit (‘within weeks we were once again destitute’) when the details suggest no larding is needed.

The final story is from O’Callaghan’s grandmother Nellie — once Jer’s youngest child, now an elderly woman in 1982, dying from cancer — remembering the stillbirth of her daughter and reflecting on what has and hasn’t changed in Ireland (the devilish Church still sticking its nose in? Check).

The strength of Life Sentences lies in its long range but intimate style. It’s a thoughtful, slow-motion novel, an antidote to the tics and quips of some millennial fiction. With no single plot culmination, the linked stories have a pleasant, rolling circularity: a reader could profitably finish the book and go straight back to its beginning, like Finnegans Wake, to revisit the family in a renewed and sharper — if not happier — light.

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