Irish misery memoir with poverty and hardship galore


Life Sentences - Billy O'Callaghan
Life Sentences | Billy O’Callaghan
Publication date: January 2021

Life Sentences tells the story of three generations of the O’Callaghan family, based on true accounts, from the 1850s to the 1980s. It opens with Jer, mourning the early death of his sister Mamie after years of abuse from her drunken husband. The narrative shifts back in time to their mother, Nancy. Born just after the famine, she leaves the island of Clear and moves to Cork, her family all dead. She is seduced by Michael Egan and ends up in the workhouse with her two children. And so it goes on.

It is a long and unrelenting story of miserable poverty, hard work and bare survival. It’s miserable to read, too, despite often lyrical prose.

You can tell that this novel was a labor of love, as O’Callaghan pieced together his family’s stories and legends. It is movingly recounted; I’m sure many would call it a tearjerker. But it left me pretty much unmoved. I can almost hear a voice say, in a good Irish accent, “Sure ye’d have to have a heart o’ stone” not to be moved by this story. And therein lies the problem. It’s like one of those Irish ballads that are terribly moving when you’re drunk, and just mawkish drivel the next morning when you’re going about your business. Maybe it’s just me, and I am hard-hearted.

Neither history nor historical fiction

To say this is “Irish history” (as I’ve seen in some reviews) really rubs me up the wrong way. It’s no more Irish history than the story of three generations of hillbillies in the US could purport to be American history. It’s one, very poor family, who unfortunately didn’t seem to have the wherewithal to pull themselves out of poverty, as many other families did (and as, probably, other branches of O’Callaghan’s family did). No doubt there is much truth in the narrative, and many families suffered as the author’s ancestors did. But it is merely a thin sliver of Irish history, a glimpse of a few sad lives, seen in isolation without reference to the backdrop of historical progress.

My feelings about this book are very similar to how I felt on reading Angela’s Ashes years ago. Maybe it’s pride: I was born in Ireland and lived there till my teens, and it’s irritating to see these clichés of Auld Ireland being paraded as history. This book is memoirs, based on [unreliable] family stories of events long past, fictionalized into a coherent narrative. More poetry even than history.

Although I have classified this book in my blog as ‘historical fiction’, I think it only barely earns its place there. Ideally, historical fiction should enlighten you about an era in history and provide insights into historical events and developments. This doesn’t.

If you’re looking for misery lit…

You might well ask “Well, what were you expecting? Doesn’t the publisher’s blurb describe it as ‘the sweeping and immersive story of one ordinary family in Ireland, and their extraordinary journey over three generations and more than a century of famine, war, violence and love’?” Well, yes, it does and it’s not untrue. And I do love historical fiction that gets right down into the daily domestic details of life, making you feel that you are in the thick of the story with the characters, rather than merely observing. But I feel that this book missed the mark. The historical backdrop is hazy, barely mentioned in passing. The domestic details failed to pull me in. In short, I didn’t find it immersive, although I can imagine that some readers would.

If you loved Angela’s Ashes and similar, you’ll probably enjoy Life Sentences. It’s well written and satisfyingly miserable if that’s what you’re looking for. For me, it’s a lesson to steer clear of the misery lit genre in the future — I just find it irritating. Even hardcore miserable fiction should include at least some element of redemption and uplift. Life Sentences doesn’t.

My star rating:
2* because I didn’t like it.
And 4* because it does what it set out to do pretty well.

My thanks to the publisher, the author and Netgalley for giving me a free copy of this book. All my reviews are 100% honest and unbiased, regardless of how I acquire the book.


I preferred: The Exiles | Christina Baker Kline


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