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The Irish Read: An extract from Billy O'Callaghan's new novel, Life Sentences

Enjoy a section from a new work by an Irish author this Sunday morning.

Aoife Barry

THE IRISH LITERARY scene has long been a source of national pride, but it’s in particularly rude health at the moment. Yet with so many books to catch up on, it can be easy to lose track of what’s out there.

Enter The Irish Read, where we feature an extract from a piece of work by an Irish or Ireland-based author.

The taster from a novel or short story will hopefully spur you on to find out more about the writer and their work.

The writer

This week, we bring you the opening few pages from Life Sentences, the latest novel by Cork-based author Billy O’Callaghan, published by Jonathan Cape.

This is O’Callaghan’s third novel (he’s also written four short story collections) and has been praised by John Banville and Anne Griffin. 

O’Callaghan is the winner of a Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award, and his story The Boatman was a finalist for the 2016 Costa Short Story Award.

The plot

“At just sixteen, Nancy 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, Life Sentences is the unforgettable journey of a family hungry for redemption, and determined against all odds to be free.”

The story

This extract begins on page one of Life Sentences. The book is broken into three sections, each in different eras, but all are connected through one family.  

Here, we meet Jer, one of the main characters, in the year 1920.

Life Sentences new jacket

 Jer

(1920)

I’d been in Barrett’s pub since six, drinking fast and heavy. The few other men at the bar saw enough to keep to themselves, and though I had come straight from the fields, having spent the day since first light cutting grass for silage, and after the second pint had no more money in my pocket, the drink kept coming at me and I kept putting it away. A couple of hours in, I’d yet to feel the effect, and it was because of weariness finally, and maybe also because of a need to be alone, that I gave up my place at the counter and moved instead to the bench seat in shadow at the end of the lounge, with a table for my glass and the wall to support my back.

Around nine, the guards had entered. Looking for me. I tried to tell them that whatever I’d said earlier at the bar meant nothing, that it was just the porter talking, but& Tom Canniffe had been in the Munster Fusiliers with me, and the other two were old RGA men, gunners, and they knew.

They knew me, but they also knew themselves, what they were capable of and what they’d have done had they been in my position, and it was Tom, the best of them and the least imposing, though only by degrees, who sat down opposite me and who put the cuffs on the table and asked, in a low voice, whether there was need for such things or if I was going to behave myself and come along quietly. Speaking in that murmur, as if from somewhere far away, looking at me but not meeting my stare, focusing instead on a point near my heart, while the other two, Larry Regan and Pat Hegarty, remained a couple of paces back on either side of him, relaxed but ready.

Big men both, my size or near as be damned, Regan like a bull across the shoulders, Hegarty not so broadly set but with the look of iron about his bones; they had always been good company to sup a pint with or to play a game of cards or billiards in the Hall.

But Tom and I had shared the trenches, and had shaken and bled alongside one another in Flanders and at Loos, and because they each had their own such bond with other men, they understood that it was necessarily different between the two of us.

‘It’s just the drink, I’m telling you, lads. There’s no need for all this.’

‘Sure, what else would you say?’ Tom sighed, shaking his head. ‘Porter talk is usually just different shades of shite. But every now and then it tells us something worth heeding. The problem for us is knowing which is which.’

‘You can’t keep me from my own sister’s funeral, Tom,’ I said. ‘That’s not right. In nobody’s book is that right.’

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‘Sergeant.’

‘What?’

‘It’s Sergeant now. You can’t be calling me Tom. Not while I’m on duty. The uniform. You know how it has to be.’

I considered him, and the others. Five years earlier, as big and friendly as these three were, I’d have tried to kick my way out of the room, and they’d have had to beat me into splinters to stop me. But in the time since the war I’d thickened and turned slow, and sitting there at the back table of Barrett’s lounge, this night of all nights, I felt as if I’d been knocked stupid by a shell. I suppose there are just times when the fight goes out of a man.

‘It’s for your own good,’ he went on, still not meeting my eye, still not raising his voice above a rustling. ‘It’s not that we want this. Don’t think that of us, Jer. Christ almighty, man. I’d be the same in your boots. But we cut you loose and, what? You go home and get a knife or a hatchet.’

I almost smiled, though happiness was a long way from my mouth.

‘I’d have no need of a blade,’ I said. My hands, flat before me on the table either side of my near-empty glass, pulled up into fists.

 ‘Not for a fella like Ned Spillane. Put the pair of us on a quiet road and I’d beat him into the ground. I’d butter the stones with him.’

‘Yeah,’ said Tom. ‘That’s what I mean. That’s what I’m talking about.’

All at once the air came out of me, and I felt my shoulders drop. ‘Except I wouldn’t,’ I told them.

‘He deserves every word of it and a time will likely come when he’ll get it yet. From someone else if not from me. But tomorrow is for other things. The day’s not about him. Mamie has to be buried right.’

Life Sentences is out now.

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