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Life Sentences

Billy O'Callaghan

March 22, 2022

Life Sentences (Godine, 2022) tells three interconnected stories about a family in his home country of Ireland. In lyrical, moving prose, with characters that reach across the years, Billy O’Callaghan describes births, deaths, war, and the life of his family. The book begins in the 1920’s with Jeremiah, who survived as a soldier in the Great War. He’s drunk and jailed on the night before his sister’s funeral to prevent him from killing his sister’s husband. “Life had its struggles,” he says as he muses about his family and experiences, “but we bore them in the way that our kind always do.” The second part goes back to the 1880’s, and Jer’s mother, Nancy, recounts being the only member of her family to survive the Great Potato Famine. Starving, she left her tiny island home to find work on the mainland and was wooed by Michael Egan, the man who fathered her two children and haunted her for years. The third section is in the voice of Nellie, Jer’s youngest daughter, who is nearing the end of her life. This is a beautifully written novel about family, home, poverty, loss, and the struggle to live in a difficult world.

Billy O’Callaghan, from Cork, Ireland, is the author of four short story collections (In Exile, In Too Deep, The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind, and The Boatman) and the novels The Dead House and My Coney Island Baby. His work has been translated into a dozen languages and earned him numerous honours, including four Bursary Awards for Literature from the Arts Council of Ireland and, in 2013, a Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award for the Short Story of the Year, as well as shortlistings for the COSTA Award and the Royal Society of Literature's Encore Award. His short stories have appeared in such literary journals and magazines around the world as: Agni, the Chattahoochee Review, the Kenyon Review, London Magazine, Los Angeles Review, Narrative Magazine, Ploughshares, the Saturday Evening Post and Winter Papers. A new novel, The Paper Man, will be published in the UK and Ireland by Jonathan Cape in 2023. When Billy isn’t reading or writing, he’s a big fan of Liverpool Football Club (called soccer in the U.S.).

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