“Poignant . . . powerful.” —New York Times
The sweeping story of one Irish family’s fight for survival makes for an unforgettable tale of love, abandonment, hunger, and redemption.
At just sixteen, Nancy Martin 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, Billy O’Callaghan’s weaves together the journey of an Irish family determined against all odds to be free. In 1920, Nancy’s son Jer has lived through battles of his own as a soldier in the Great War. Now drunk in a jail cell, he struggles to piece together where he has come from, and who he wants to be. And in the early 1980s, Jer’s youngest child Nellie is nearing the end of her life in a council house just steps away from her childhood home; remembering the night when she and her family stole back something that was rightfully theirs, she imagines what lies ahead for those who will survive her.
This moving portrait of life in Ireland is set in the village where O’Callaghan’s family has lived for generations, and is partly based on stories told by his parents and grandparents. His writing is imbued with lived experience and hard-earned truths, creating a novel so rich in life and empathy it is impossible to let go of his characters. An ambitious and lyrical family saga, this novel confirms Billy O’Callaghan as one of the finest living Irish writers.
“O’Callaghan writes with a bright, enlivening emotional palette and a penetrating eye for the details of family history. A deeply felt and distinctive work by a real craftsman.”
—Kirkus (Starred Review)
“O’Callaghan has done a brilliant job of capturing the ethos of the Irish setting as we see it through the beautifully created lives of his characters, who are extraordinary, as is this timeless book about them.”
—Booklist (Starred Review)
“Inspired by stories from his own family history, O’Callaghan delivers a slim novel that is thick with memory and regret. The hard lives of the Martins leave readers with an indelible impression of Irish history.”
“His prose is a feast after a famine… Invariably delightful.”
“A thoughtful, slow-motion novel, an antidote to the tics and quips of some millennial fiction.”
—The Spectator (U.K.)
“The reader is invested from the start . . . So poetically elegant as to be breathtaking . . . writing at its finest.”
—New York Journal of Books
“A superb and moving novel. O’Callaghan is one of our finest writers . . . and this is his best work yet.”
“A welcome voice to the pantheon of new Irish writing.”
“Life Sentences is aptly named, because the novel is as involved with the rhetoric of people’s personal stories as it is with the Hand of Fate’s pointed finger—whether that comes in the form of Mother Church, or war, or by what still remains, sadly, the ongoing war over women’s rights, and their bodies. Billy O’Callaghan is a new writer to me, and I’m happy to have made the discovery.”
—Ann Beattie, author of A Wonderful Stroke of Luck
“Billy O’Callaghan has long been one of my favorite writers; his way with a short story being no less than masterful. Also a splendid novelist, he now has returned to the novel and brought his remarkable narrative skills to a work of downright epic scope, making that special form utterly his own. Life Sentences is an enthralling book by a world treasure of a writer.”
—Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
“In Billy O’Callaghan’s strongest work yet, the prose sings with all the poetry literature is capable of, and with the feelings of his characters, resurrected with such compassion and clarity, it’s as though they wait in the next room, just beyond the turn of a page.”
—Simon Van Booy, author of Night Came with Many Stars
“Life Sentences tightens Billy O’Callaghan’s claim to a permanent place in Irish fiction. The humanity and authentic grace of his characters are upheld by a keen ear for the Munster lexicons of grievous love. There are paragraphs of surpassing power, able to break and bind the heart at once.”
—Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade