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“He didn’t see her at first, as he walked out of his house, toward the pool.  Tall and slender, his naked flesh so pale it was as if he’d made it through the entire summer without letting even the smallest bit of sunlight touch him.  Nothing touched him.  Wasn’t that what made Jay Gatsby so great?  He stepped toward the pool, that arrogant walk, that look on his face,  That knowing.  He had it all…And then in an instant, the world exploded, the gun smoked.  Her fingers shook and burned.” – Opening page. 

cover beautiful little fools 2In the first two pages of Jillian Cantor’s retelling of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jay Gatsby is the victim of a frustrated woman who does not “have it all,” someone whose “heat and anger [at him] has been simmering for so long, [that] now it is boiling over….[With one shot], his greatness flickered.  He fell unevenly into the pool, water cascading into the sky like a choreographed dance of swans.  Beautiful, unexpected.”  The attacker turns away from the pool and runs.  Author Cantor leaves most of the detail surrounding this shooting in limbo for the reader to discover as the action leading to the shooting begins in 1917, develops over the course of five years, and leads to this climax in August, 1922.  Two pages later, the scene shifts from West Egg, New York, on Long Island, scene of Gatsby’s shooting, back to Louisville, Kentucky in 1917, as Daisy Fay, a young woman living with her family, is helping her sister, slightly crippled from polio, take home-grown food to the poor at the almshouse.  It is a hot day, and the two girls are offered a ride by a soldier from nearby Camp Taylor.  Unsurprisingly, he is Jay Gatsby, and as the reader quickly discovers, he is on the prowl for attractive women, or in the case of Daisy and her friends, girls still in their teens.

jillian cantor 2

Author Jillian Cantor

Much of this novel follows the narrative pattern of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but the focus is markedly different.  Here author Cantor focuses primarily on three young women, all of whom appear in the Gatsby book in which they are victims, but who are presented here as more independent and more in control of their own destinies.  While Beautiful Little Fools is certainly not a feminist tract, it does illustrate how different the outcomes might have been in Gatsby if the position of women, their own expectations, the expectations of them by others, and  the culture in which they lived had been significantly different.  Three Gatsby women, all originally from Louisville, Kentucky, are the main focus here:  Daisy, who becomes the wife of the almost impossibly wealthy Tom Buchanan;  Jordan Baker, Daisy’s close friend, a golfer who is on the tour though accused in a major scandal; and Catherine McCoy, a lesser developed character who attends women’s suffrage meetings and who is the sister of Myrtle Wilson, a married woman who is profiting from her role as the secret lover of Tom Buchanan.  Their stories rotate throughout, often overlap, and provide the structure of the novel.  At the same time, a new character, Detective Frank Charles from New York, appears at key points in 1922, after the death of Jay Gatsby, as he investigates that death, the characters associated with Gatsby, and the clues that have developed, including the discovery of a diamond hair pin at the murder scene.

Curchill Downs where Daisy enjoyed watching the "ponies."

Churchill Downs, where Daisy enjoyed watching Tom’s “ponies.”

Cantor takes great pains to place her characters in realistic, if sometimes romanticized scenes, in order to give them lives as women, which is not characteristic of the Gatsby book. Here the deaths of Daisy’s sister Rose and their father in a train accident have made Daisy more vulnerable and she sees marriage to an extremely wealthy man as a way to keep herself and her family safe.  Tom Buchanan, her eventual husband, has more money than he knows what to do with, and Daisy sees that as a way to  ensure a better life for herself and her family.  She enjoys the fact that he “collects ponies” for racing, and she loves moving from elaborate house to elaborate house in Europe and around the country, eventually settling on Long Island.  

1920s golf attire for Jordan.

Jordan Baker, on the women’s golf tour, is sexually uncertain, and falls victim to blackmail until she sorts her life out.  Catherine, sister of Myrtle, who is Tom Buchanan’s lover, is concerned with signs that Myrtle is the victim of physical abuse, and shares her dream, “Do you know what I really want? I want the Nineteenth Amendment to pass the Senate.  I want us to have a voice, a real voice in this country.  Imagine not needing any man.  Imagine if being a woman were enough.”  She sees her strength as a way to protect her sister. She can not imagine the look on Myrtle’s face if she ever learns the enjoyable things she has done with men.  “Why did sex have to mean anything more for a woman than it did for a man?”  As the false lives adopted by some of the women begin to crumble, they start to take responsibility for their mistaken assumptions.  They also begin to make deals with each other and the men they know in order to get what they want.

King's Point Estate on Long Island, used to depict Jay Gatsby's house in the film.

King’s Point Estate on Long Island, used to depict Jay Gatsby’s house in the film.

As the novel becomes increasingly complicated, challenging the reader to keep track of who is sleeping with whom, who is threatening whom, and who is  planning to end a big love relationship in her life, the women’s shallow expectations begin to become tiresome and the lessons they are learning become more selfish than universal.  Violence, which has always been close to the surface for all of them, begins to emerge, especially under the influence of alcohol, and not one, but several murders occur.  Detective Frank Charles, for whom the reader develops great empathy, is still anxious to find out the sources of the separate violent acts, but he believes that whatever he discovers, he will not be able to prove.  Hired as a private investigator, after the police cannot find enough evidence to try and convict the several people who might have committed murders, Frank finally acknowledges that “I tend to think justice finds a way of working itself out.  We all get what’s coming to us.”  Ultimately, time works its will.  As the author points out through Det. Frank Charles, for the many crimes one must ignore, acts of goodness may be able to compensate.

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com

The Churchill Downs photo may be found on https://saratogaliving.com

The women’s golf photo from 1921 shows the typical dress of the times:  https://www.golfmonthly.com

The Kings Point house used as the residence of Gatsby in the film of The Great Gatsby is featured here:  https://www.fancypantshomes.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Classic Novel, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, United States
Written by: Jillian Cantor
Published by: Harper Perennial
Date Published: 02/01/2022
ISBN: 978-0063051263
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover


“Dolphins are constant vocal innovators, playful geniuses with unspeakable power, the Maria Callas of the sea, their sounds unworldly and pure.  A gospel group on helium, hitting all the high notes.”

coverIn her latest study of an animal species, Audrey Schulman focuses on dolphins, their intelligence, their verbalization, their relationships with humans and each other, and the possibility that they may be able to initiate communication with humans if they and the humans can evolve a common language.  Using as a model a scientific experiment conducted by marine scientist John C. Lilly from June to August, 1965, at a St. Thomas research center, the author recreates, and fictionalizes, this experiment in which a scientist lives with a dolphin in a special house for several months.  The fictional scientist here, a woman, works directly on a series of experiments to see if the dolphin can be taught human speech, while the male scientists involved in the project are more concerned with recording data and statistics about dolphin/human interaction.  Though this project was controversial when it was concluded in the 1960s, real research into the subject of dolphin communication and speech does continue into the present under the direction of Dr. Denise Herzing, whose foundation, The Wild Dolphin Project, funds the ongoing research.

Cat-eye glasses with electronics in the ear pieces.

Cat’s-eye glasses with electronics in the ear pieces.

The story begins with twenty-one-year-old Cora, a young woman, partly deaf, who works in Tampa as a waitress at a club, lip-reading as she works.  When an episode with an aggressive customer leads her to escape the club one night and decide not return, she moves to St. Thomas, where she hopes life will be less expensive and more fun.  There,  Blum, a scientist associated with Harvard, has been working for eight years on animal research, recently deciding to use surgery on the brains of captive dolphins to obtain more information. His experiment on two captive dolphins is a disaster, however, and he is banned forever from Marine World, which has supplied the dolphins.  In the process, however, Blum has discovered the intelligence of the dolphins and has decided to apply for his own research grant from NASA, which is actively seeking research topics.  Cora meets him at a private beach on St. Thomas, where he is recording dolphin behavior, and she eventually begins to work for him.  Since her hearing is dramatically improved whenever she is underwater, she need not wear her special cat’s-eye glasses to improve her hearing, devices which she uses on land but which must not get wet.

Dolphin playing with squid, perhaps readying to throw it.

Dolphin playing with squid, perhaps getting ready to throw it.

Four dolphins become her subjects – Ernie, Kat, Mother, and Junior – each with his/her own personality and set of behaviors.  While Cora works with the dolphins separately, always in the water, she observes their behavior, often while tossing pieces of butterfish to them.  Blum and her male counterparts stay busy on land, writing notes and collecting data. Cora notices that dolphin Kat particularly enjoys twirling small squid and then hurling them at the faces of other dolphins, and, occasionally, spectators, and she appreciates the fact that Kat is often deliberate about choosing a target.  The men do not participate in the on-site observations in the water that Cora does, and they seem not to have inner feelings or empathy for the animals.  Blum, for example, has corralled dolphins into shallow water in order to beach them so he can cut incisions into the tops of their heads, the experiment which originally got him into trouble years ago because he used too much anesthesia, and she cannot help but notice that all of the dolphins are affected by these traumatic sessions and change their behavior significantly after they are later released into deeper water.  Blum and his assistant have also confined one or more animals to a small tank, then done experiments on them there; denying food to encourage them to do as Blum expects; and setting up tasks which they must perform as he demands in order to be fed.  Cora, by contrast, allows the animals to set the tone and speed, adapting her own behavior to stimulate more contact with them and allow them to behave more “normally.”

Dolphin at Dolphin Research Organizatiion.

Dolphin at Dolphin Research Organizatiion.

A crisis comes in the novel when Harvard’s Timothy Leary, a proponent of LSD and other psychedelic drugs, comes for a visit.  He regards the dolphins as magical “spirit guides” and decides to approach them directly in the water, marching with purpose to them through the water, though they do not know him.  Frightened and upset by his aggressive approach, one of the dolphins aims straight at Leary and makes a rapid move toward him. Leary panics and flees in fear.  This episode further highlights the novel’s subtexts involving dominance – between humans and animals and between men and women in the mid-1960s.  This all comes to a peak when the group decides to build a “homearium,” a place where one dolphin (Junior) and one researcher (Cora) will live together in a specially devised house in which part is dry, and part is under water.  Here Cora works on teaching Junior the alphabet, distinguishing between shapes (square, triangle, circle), recognizing colors and some common children’s songs, learning to say words, and understanding each other and each other’s limits.  Soon Cora realizes that as much as she is teaching and training Junior, he is also training her.  Eventually, Cora will make a decision that will change the whole research project.

Author Audrey Schulman

Author Audrey Schulman

Unfortunately, this “Homearium” section, the final section, becomes increasingly disjointed, with the introduction of a new character, flashforwards to Cora’s life many years later with her own family, and major questions regarding the appropriateness of some of the relationships between researcher and dolphin.  The additional effects of Timothy Leary and his “medicines” on some of the head researchers also peripherally affect Cora and her ongoing project with Junior, raising the issue of “who’s in charge here.” Author Audrey Schulman addresses these issues directly in her note at the end of the novel.  Here she explains that since the reader might not be as fascinated by what she writes about animals as she is, that “I use every trick I can to keep you invested.  My books tend to include a strong plot, charismatic megafauna (polar bears, gorillas, dolphins, etc.), and the threat of violence.  Lately I have figured out that adding a touch of sex might help to keep the attention focused.”  As a reader/reviewer, I was fascinated by the project involving the dolphins and speech, hopeful that Cora would find some major purpose to her life, and energized by the new knowledge I was receiving. In this final “Homearium” section, however, I felt manipulated by the deliberate addition of extraneous and even irrelevant information, in what the author herself regards as a “trick” attempt to “keep [my] attention focused.”


map st. croixPhotos.  The Cat-s Eye glasses with hearing aids appear on https://www.pinterest.com

A dolphin playing with a squid is found here:  https://www.livescience.com

The happy dolphin is one of many shown at this site:  https://dolphins.org

The author photo is from https://heet.org

The map of the Virgin Islands shows the location of St. Thomas, home of these experiments.  https://www.istockphoto.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Exploration, Historical, Psychological study, Virgin Islands
Written by: Audrey Schulman
Published by: Europa Editions
Date Published: 04/05/2022
ISBN: 978-1609457846
Available in: Ebook Hardcover


Note:  Roddy Doyle has been WINNER of the Man Booker Prize;  WINNER of the Irish PEN Award;  and WINNER of the Bord Gáis Irish Book Award for Novel of the Year.

“There’d nearly been a fight. People were drinking wine like it was beer, and a man Sam didn’t know had thumped the table and shouted that House of Cards was better than Breaking Bad and Mad Men, put together….A man had kicked over a glass.  A woman had thrown a dish-load of peanuts at him…[and] his wife Emer had been in the middle of it, too, standing up for The Killing.”- from “Box Sets”

cover doyleIn ten short stories, Irish author Roddy Doyle sums up the new, difficult lives of several men dealing alone with various issues, including the difficulty of dealing with health-required lockdowns in the wake of Covid 19.  In Ireland, these lockdowns seem to have been accepted as a matter of course, something affecting everyone and obeyed by everyone, though creating a strong sense of melancholy and loss to everyday life. Roddy Doyle’s book title, “Life Without Children,” also reflects the emptiness many of his characters feel with their children now grown up and missing from their parents’ everyday lives, to the point where at least one character, in the short story “Life Without Children,” wonders if it is even possible to change his now-dull life for the better.  Vaguely suicidal thoughts impinge on this character’s everyday thoughts, and when he makes the dramatic decision to discard his cell phone in a rubbish bin, he “makes himself walk away.  It’s the hardest thing he’s ever done.  But he’s done it.  He’s done the mad thing.”  He feels better.

From a cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi, popular with friends of Sam and Emer.

Recipe from a Jerusalem cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi, popular with friends of Sam and Emer.

In “Box Sets,” which also takes place during the dog days of Covid, Sam and Emer have tightened their belts and looked toward cutting down on expenses.  Sam has lost his job and has been unable to find a new one, though Emer still has her job.  To pass the time during the day, he watches the various seasons of The Bridge (2011 – 2018), The Killing (2011 – 2014), and other long TV series, but he spends virtually all his time alone.  Often depressed, he and Emer are sometimes invited to dinners created by their friends – more recently “her friends,” according to Sam – featuring often international “street food” made from recipe books prominently displayed on the kitchen counter.  A complication arises when Sam is hit and injured by a bicycle rider while out for a walk one day.  He screams, hurls the injured man’s bike over the wall into the sea, and returns home with no thought to the injured bike rider. Wife Emer is sympathetic about his injuries, but not about the temper tantrum he has thrown – along with a coffee mug he broke against their kitchen wall before he left the house for his walk. Thinking of the future after the accident, Sam sees his life in “boxed sets,”  but he also thinks about changing his life – riding a bike, reading more, having dinner ready when Emer comes home from work, and going out on Fridays with her, wherever she wants to go.

phone in waterAs these two brief summaries reflect, the “action” of these stories is quiet and personal for all the main characters, each of whom spends much of his time analyzing his situation, his relationships, and himself.  My favorite story, and the most fully developed, is “The Charger,” at thirty-nine pages, the length of a short novella.  The study of a marriage, it focuses on “Mick’s”  personal background and how that has determined his present life and circumstances.  Mick comes alive here, in part because readers are able to identify with Mick – a good man who blames himself because “there’s no one who needs him.”  A key symbol here is that of a cell phone charger, plugged in, but without the phone attached. The end of the charger is in a bowl of water, and Mick worries about whether this means he will be electrocuted if he tries to remove it from the water.  As he obsesses over the charger and the water bowl, he even wonders if he is going to be the subject of an “assassination attempt.”  Gradually, his sad childhood unfolds, a childhood that he has never shared with his wife Mary – for him it was “normal.”  As the details of the charger and the bowl of water become clearer, Mick’s own visions of reality also become clearer – less obsessive – and his perception of the future and his relationship with Mary more understandable.

Five Lamps landmark in Dublin.

Five Lamps landmark in Dublin.

“The Five Lamps” gives additional importance to the effects of Covid on the community and the attitudes of some of the characters.  Again, a sad and failed male character – this one unnamed – is on his own, this time searching for his son, whom he has not seen for four years.  Several episodes inserted into the main narrative provide the memories and the complications of the man’s background and his regrets about his son as he drives to Dublin, to search places where he thinks he may find his son or people who may have had contact with him.  He stops at a meth clinic, gives a clerk at a sandwich shop a picture of his son, and chats with the delivery driver for a bakery, who identifies with the search.  As the man’s odyssey becomes more and more difficult, frustrating, and challenging to his own physical stamina, the placement of this story at the end of the book becomes clear.

Author Roddy Doyle. Poto by Andrew Crowley

Author Roddy Doyle. Photo by Andrew Crowley

Author of almost two dozen books of fiction and nonfiction, numerous plays and screenplays, dozens of short stories, and eight books for children, Roddy Doyle has won literary prizes in virtually all these categories.  His style, often darkly ironic, is also comic and insightful, and he achieves these moods without resorting to a great deal of description. Instead, as he shows here, he uses dialogue, often interior dialogue, to create his characters and develop his action.  This novel is less humorous than most of his other novels, even the darkly humorous ones, perhaps a result of the frustrations of Covid isolationism and perhaps the result of the “life without children,” a status which many of us have reached but which few of us have seen featured as a (sad) main theme.  This is a collection which will keep older readers thoroughly involved and intrigued by the author’s solutions to his characters’ darker moments “without children,” while younger readers will be intrigued by Doyle’s insights and his depictions of a different reality.


Photos:   Photograph of Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Fresh Figs,  in a cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi, a favorite of friends of Sam and Emer.  https://eatdrinkfilms.com

Cell phone with water,  from https://www.popularmechanics.com

Five Lamps, a landmark of Dublin, from https://www.tshirtcompany.ie

Author Roddy Doyle, Photo by Andrew Crowley:  https://www.telegraph.co.uk

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Ireland, Literary, Short Stories, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Roddy Doyle
Published by: Vking
Date Published: 02/22/2022
ISBN: 978-0593300565
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“ [Artist Felix] Vallotton came to prominence in a period of -isms: symbolism, naturalism and decadence in literature; post-impressionism and Nabi in art; anarchism, reaction, militarism and boulangisme in politics, not to mention the Dreyfus affair and the Panama Canal scandal.  It was also a period in which the extraordinary rapidity of technological and social change became a subject as well as a context of literature and art.  As Charles Péguy wrote in 1913: ‘The world has changed less since Jesus Christ than it has changed in the last thirty years.’ ”  – Patrick McGuinness, “Vallotton and fin de siècle France.”

coverPrepared as a permanent memento of two grand shows of the work of “Felix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet,” this book showcases the cumulative artwork by the artist displayed for six months in two different sites, the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from June 30 – September 29, 2019, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from October 29 – January 26, 2020.  Here a host of different art critics write chapters detailing the various periods and aspects of Swiss artist Felix Vallotton’s work.  Dita Amory and Ann Dumas, in the “The Very Singular Vallotton,” stress this artist’s uniqueness – he was Swiss, not French – brought up Protestant with rigorous discipline, and his paintings reflected this heritage, they assert.  Vallotton (1865 – 1925) was not part of any of the radical movements in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century, and except for his association with Nabi friends, he remained unmentioned and virtually unknown in the “art circles” of the period.  He was not “just” a painter, however.  Vallotton also made a major contribution to art history with his revival of the woodblock print, pure black and white, which, in his case, expresses often satiric and dark points of view.

Nude at the Stove, 1900.

Nude at the Stove, 1900.

Amory and Dumas note that the acerbic wit he displays in many of his prints made them popular in “established anarchist political journals” and led him eventually to take unusual steps even with his paintings which created much attention from 1900 on. Vallotton’s unusual domestic scenes were often considered “subversive,” filled with “caustic wit,” and often suggestive of stories regarding the subjects of the paintings – predatory females, men on the prowl, and relationships which suggest that secrecy is essential.  Nudes become an important aspect of his work, with some people “admiring their flawless classicism” while detractors attack their “dry frigidity.”  As for his landscapes, those are described as “conceptual,” not the capturing of an instant in time, as the Impressionists promoted.  As Amory and Dumas conclude, “Vallotton has no obvious place in the trajectory of French painting of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and was immune to all avant-garde developments from Impressionism to Cubism.” They point out that the sometimes “bleak, visceral tension of his interiors” bear a great resemblance to the work of American painter Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967), who visited Paris twice between 1907 and 1910 and may have seen Vallotton’s work while there.


L’Anarchiste, 1892. The young man with a frown has his hand in his pocket.

Readers of the novels of Patrick McGuinness may be surprised to see a chapter that he has written for this collection, entitled “Vallotton and fin de siècle France,” which is the source of the opening quotation here.  In this chapter McGuinness concentrates on Vallotton’s prints: “Demonstrations? Anarchist bombings? Police charging a crowd, batons athrash? Vallotton had the image,” achieving the effects of a news scoop or an action photograph.  Vallotton also wrote three novels, “which showed an imagination that was not simply visual but narrative, and which paid homage to newspaper sensationalism, detective fiction , and the mystery genre.”  His political agenda was anarchist, and his print of “L’Anarchiste” shows several aggressive police grabbing a long-haired young man with his hand in his pocket, as two enormous soldiers get ready for action, if necessary.  The viewer will fill in the blanks.

This "story picture," "Red Roo, 1898, shows a moment in time at the doorway.

This “story picture,” “Red Room, 1898, shows a moment in time at the doorway.

The succeeding chapter, by Belinda Thomson, focuses on the Nabi Group, a group which used theories being developed by Paul Gauguin to carry emotion in paintings “through bold colors applied flatly within simplified contours.” “The Red Room,” an example of this work, also shows the “secret story-telling” so popular with Vallotton.  By the end of World War I, Vallotton had stopped doing his immensely popular woodblock prints and was now using paint exclusively to convey his ideas and images.  Even scenes of war are featured as paintings.  Since the emphasis of the art show and the book is so strongly on people, Vallotton’s spectacular scenes of nature and his semi-abstract sunsets are almost completely absent here.

Gertrude Stein, friend of Vallotton.

Gertrude Stein, friend of Vallotton, 1907.

Beautifully illustrated, sometimes with full-page copies of the paintings, this book concentrates on artwork, instead of words, though the five essays are beautifully written and provide great insight into Vallotton and his legacy.  Of primary importance are the sixty-eight pages of colored reproductions of his work which highlight Vallotton in all phases of his painting, including several pages of portraits, including one, especially memorable, of Gertrude Stein, who became a friend.   These are followed by thirty-three pages of black and white prints, usually with two prints per page, so well chosen that those who may not have been fans of black and white prints in the past are certain to be surprised by the depth to which Vallotton has been able to use these prints for his own purposes, including satire and social criticism. Ultimately, Patrick McGuinness in his essay sums up the power of Vallotton’s work:  “Wherever we are in the French fin de siecle, we are never very far from one of Vallotton’s images: whether a portrait in a highbrow literary magazine, a street scene in a fashionable revue or a pungent image of police brutality in a radical newspaper, there is something ubiquitous about him.  Vallotton is always there, in the political, social, artistic, and urban life of Paris.”

Evening on the Loire, 1923.

Evening on the Loire, 1923, the painting that began my love of Vallotton’s work.

Photos: Nude at Stove, 1900.  https://www.wikiart.org

L’Anarchiste, 1892.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

La Chambre Rouge, 1898.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

Gertrude Stein, 1907.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

“Evening on the Loire, 1923.  https://www.wikiart.org


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Biography, Book Club Suggestions, Switzerland France, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Various, representing he Royal Academy of Arts
Published by: Royal Academy of Arts, London
ISBN: 978-1912520046
Available in: Hardcover

Note:  Billy O’Callaghan has received many awards for his short stories and was WINNER of a Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award in 2013.

“Even now, I see myself in shards of glass and find more of a sense of identity there than I can in the shaving mirror.  Standing in the cold of an early morning…staring at my reflection, the face I see in the rust-freckled glass is a strange one: flesh leaden with middle age; eyes wide in awe at having to fit myself, whoever I might be, to the tired features; skin lined by years and hanging from the scaffold of bone.” – Jer Martin, 1920.

cover life sentencesSetting his third novel in the south of Ireland in the years between 1920 and 1982, author Billy O’Callaghan writes a semi-autobiographical account of an extended Irish family always struggling to stay alive, meet their responsibilities, and love their children.  Focusing separately on three family members from three generations, each with his/her own novella, the novel covers a large swath of history, and through flashbacks and flashforwards provides an intimate picture of the families’ lives and of life in general during poor times in a country in which simply staying alive is sometimes a person’s primary focus. Jer, as his section opens, is being arrested at a pub  for his own good and jailed overnight for the violence he has shown toward his brother-in-law, Ned Spillane.  Jer believes Spillane has finally succeeded in killing his sister with his drinking.  Though “[Ned] might not have kicked the chair away with his drinking, he put the rope around [Mamie’s] neck…And now she’s gone,” he notes.  Alone in a cell and exhausted as he tries to sober up, he feels his mind sinking slowly “from the man I appear to be, down to the stranger lying half an inch beneath the surface of my skin.”  He bemoans the fact that he has never really  known his father, Michael Egan, having seen him on “maybe half a dozen occasions over as many years,” but he has tried to be strong, while recognizing that the few occasional periods of calm that he has felt serve primarily to connect and intensify his feelings of turmoil.

World War I, in which Jer participated and was wounded.

World War I, in which Jer participated and was wounded.

Jer’s story, from the beginning of the book, establishes many of the relationships and circumstances of his life and introduces key players from other parts of the novel, setting the scenes for the earlier and later segments which follow in the book’s structure.  Jer’s service in the army from 1908 through World War I included his being wounded in the war, and he has many nightmares of warfare to deal with.  On an emotional level, he also lets the reader know that he fights internal wars.  He loves his six children, and at his sister Mamie’s burial, to which he goes accompanied by “minders” in case he gets violent toward his brother-in-law, he dearly wishes he could “cuddle’ Mamie’s three distraught children at her gravesite. Eventually, he expresses his belief that life is determined every bit as much by absences as by acts, though he shares deep fears that if he lets himself go that he may not regain his balance.

Cape Clear Island, ten miles off the coast of Cork.

Cape Clear Island, ten miles off the coast of Cork.

In Part II, “Nancy,” Jer’s mother, begins her adult life on Clear Island, ten miles off the coast of Cork, during times of the potato blight and Great Famine (1845-1849), a disastrous time in which over a million  people died of starvation, including Nancy’s mother.  At nineteen Nancy, alone, leaves the island and sails to a place outside of Cork in search of work.  Working full-time as a housekeeper in a large house, she is eventually attracted to Michael Egan, who looks after the grounds twice a month.  Their relationship leads to the inevitable – two children – and Michael is no help.  Vivid descriptions follow of the workhouse where she is employed in Cork for three years, without her children, who are not allowed at the workhouse.  Her children are released to her when Mamie is five and Jer is two-and-a-half so that they can all move on elsewhere.  Years pass, and Nancy eventually reconnects with the children’s father, Michael Egan, at his request, though she never again has a relationship with him.


Night-time graveyard, similar to that where Baby John was buried at night.

In Part III, Nellie, the youngest of Jer’s six children by Mary Carty, a woman he loves, is in her sixties in 1982 when this section opens, and she is on her deathbed, reconciled to the inevitable and refusing medical care. Remembering her past, she is most haunted by the death and burial of her first child, baby John.  She and the family were determined to have him buried in the family plot, but she and Dinsy, the baby’s father, have not married, much less married in the church, and they know they would have to bury the baby secretly, late at night, in order to avoid the priests overseeing the churchyard.  The relationship between the poor and the church is depicted graphically here, and the church as a potential source of comfort is revealed as punitive instead.

author photo

Author Billy O’Callaghan

Author Billy O’Callaghan, a master of description, both physical and emotional, creates scenes of great sadness, stressing the goodness of the people and the horrors of outside events – from the Potato Famine through a world war and a society and church in which women have little control over their lives. The strength of these women lies in their love of family, especially their children, and their willingness to do whatever is necessary to save them under horrific conditions.  Their hard lives are their “normal,” one which becomes real as a result of O’Callaghan’s insightful descriptions of the conditions under which these women live and the creativity with which they approach their difficult roles as mothers and caregivers.  These mothers give birth to the next generation of mothers, stronger for the events they have shared and survived, even as they may continue to struggle on many levels that affect their families.  Nellie sums up her experience near the end of the novel:  “There are no beginnings, my father once told me, and no ends.  It had been his experience, he said, that until our hearts stop beating, there’s only what lies between, and that’s a time of war and nothing but. I often ponder this, and I believe I know what he meant, though I’d struggle to explain the thought in a way that makes sense.  You need to have felt it.” O’Callaghan makes you feel it.

Photos.  Men of the Royal Irish Rifles, with which Jer may have served, are from https://www.history.com

Clear Island or Cape Clear Island, where Nancy began her life, may be found here:  https://www.pinterest.com

The old cemetery, similar to where Baby John was buried, is on   https://www.bizjournals.com

Author Billy O’Callaghan’s photo appears on https://www.irishexaminer.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Billy O'Callaghan
Published by: Jonathan Cape
Date Published: 01/14/2021
ISBN: 978-1787332454
Available in: Paperback Hardcover

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