Life Sentences: An ambitious and lyrical family saga

Book revew: Billy O’Callaghan’s bravura lyricism is marred by the novel’s lack of coherence

The family history outlined in the closing section of the novel  is based on author Billy O’Callaghan’s own forebears.

The family history outlined in the closing section of the novel is based on author Billy O’Callaghan’s own forebears.

According to the OECD, it can take between two and 11 generations to rise out of poverty and attain the mean national income of your state. In Ireland it takes about five generations to leave behind the life-altering shocks of the poverty trap. And it’s been this way for quite some time, as Billy O’Callaghan’s novel Life Sentences ably illustrates.

Opening in 1920, we meet Jer Martin drinking to quench a murderous rage he’s nursing toward his brother-in-law Ned Spillane. Spillane has pushed Jer’s beloved sister Mamie into an untimely grave with his boozing and shiftlessness. Soon the RIC get wind of Jer’s drunken roaring and arrive to lock him a barracks cell for the night so as he can cool off ahead of Mamie’s funeral the following morning. The sergeant is Tom, with whom Jer fought alongside in the Munster Fusiliers at Flanders and Loos. For him, Jer goes quietly.

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