While Ghost Light is the first Joseph O’Connor that I have read, his writing covers the available spectrum from journalism and other non-fiction, through film scripts, plays and novels (this is his seventh). So it is fitting that he has chosen to join that subset: Ghost Light is a novel about the great playwright (and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre), John Millington Synge, told through the memories almost 50 years on of his lover, Molly Allgood (stage name Maire O’Neill):
Johnny Synge’s bit of native. The proddy’s little squaw. That Kingstown playboy’s huer. Insults hurled long ago by the wags of witty Dublin, still audible after more than forty years.
Molly Allgood was every bit as real as Synge and was his frustrated lover, but O’Connor offers the caveat that “Ghost Light is a work of fiction, frequently taking immense liberties with fact. The experiences and personalities of the real Molly and Synge differed from those of my characters in uncountable ways.” In fact, he acknowledges “certain biographers will want to beat me with a turf-shovel”. It is a mark of O’Connor’s writing ability that even his Acknowledgements and Caveat make for entertaining reading.
Synge died in 1909 but this novel opens in 1952. Molly lives in London in a dilapidated, near-ruined terrace on the Bayswater Road. She’s destitute — tea, tobacco and cheap gin define her material world. Her memories of her affair are sparked by two “hopeful” events. She has been hired to read a part in a radio play on the BBC World Service and, even though the BBC always takes forever to pay, it offers the chance of some small income, not to mention a reminder that she was once a respected actress.
That only sets the stage, however, for it is the other event that opens the box of memories. Molly has received a letter from a California post-doctoral student, requesting an interview:
I could offer a small sum as remuneration for your time. Would an amount of, say, $50 be acceptable? Alternatively I should be happy to send you anything you require to that value, since I know certain goods and foodstuffs are still quite scarce in England. There is another financial question I would like to broach, Miss O’Neill, and I hope I shall do so without offense. I understand some years ago you sold to his surviving family all your letters of an intimate nature from Synge. My institution has authorized me to say, should other manuscripts having to do with JMS and his circle remain in your possession (scripts, revisions, juvenilia, notebooks, drafts, fragments, abandoned works, et cetera) we would be honored to acquire them for our archive.
Molly has only one physical reminder left, the original letter that Synge sent her, apologizing for a harsh assessment he made of her at an Abbey rehearsal: “It was bloody of me and I am sorry. I allowed myself to become upset.”
“You must permit the words to lead you to the heart words come from. You requested of me advice. That is it.”
Molly is reluctant to sell the letter to the American student but the offer opens another possiblity. Slowly but surely, she has sold all her valuable possessions to a generous second-hand dealer in Russell Square. Perhaps the time has come to part with her last.
Molly decides that she will walk to Broadcasting House (not that her circumstances offer much choice) and that offers O’Connor the structure to create a tension between the present of London still recovering from the war and the past of Dublin and the Abbey Theatre in the first decade of the century. We know from the start that Molly’s affair with Synge involved more pain than pleasure, but that brief interlude came to dominate her life — as she comes across people and places in the London streets, each experience opens a new chapter in bringing back those memories.
I am not going to try to list them here. O’Connor uses the second person to tell the story, not one that usually appeals to me but it is effective in this book. The overall effect is a literary version of peeling away various layers of an onion, examining each in detail and then moving on to the next. It is a very deliberate decision on his part and knowing in advance what is going to happen three or four layers further on in the process, spoiling the foreshadowing he uses so effectively, would destroy the impact of the novel.
That process allows the author to develop a number of themes around his main stories of Molly and Synge and their affair — turn-of-the-century Irish theatre and the repressive nature of bourgeois Irish family life then are just two examples — that makes this novel much richer than your usual “memory” novel. We come to know not just Molly and Synge, but develop a very good appreciation of the world around them — and the world that Molly was sentenced to live in when Synge died. Ghost Light deserves to be compared with The Master as an example of how competently the Irish can deal with this very particular sub-genre.
My own “guiding light” in Irish fiction is Kimbofo at Reading Matters (who is also a fellow Shadow Giller judge). On her blog, she offers a regular feature (Triple Choice Tuesday) where bloggers, readers and authors offer three book selections — their favorite book, a book that changed their world and a book that deserves a wider audience. It was Joseph O’Connor’s selections there that drew my attention to Ghost Light and I am glad that it did. For Kimbofo’s own thoughts on this novel and O’Connor’s well-known Star of the Sea, check out Kimbofo’s reviews here.