Sunday, March 18, 2012
Book Review - Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor
This is the first book by Joseph O’Connor (yes, he’s the brother of Sinead O’Connor) I’ve read, but I can tell you, it won’t be the last. I loved Ghost Light, and I intend on investigating this wonderful Irish author further. Joseph O’Connor’s writing runs the gamut from non-fiction and journalism to screenplays, stage plays, and novels, of which Ghost Light is his seventh.
Ghost Light revolves around the great Irish playwright (and co-founder, with William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory, of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre), John Millington Synge, and his fiancée, the Irish Catholic actress, Molly Allgood, an actress who performed under the name of Maire O’Neill. Synge was fourteen years older than Molly, and a Protestant, things that did make a difference. Their engagement, in fact, their entire relationship, was frowned on by just about everyone, including their families and Yeats. Molly’s friends and family believed she was being led astray by the older Synge, while Synge’s friends and family thought his romance with Molly would cause his art to suffer, thus affecting the success of the Abbey Theatre. Synge had graduated from the university, while Molly had trouble with everyday spelling and punctuation. Synge encouraged Molly to read better books, and to study poetry so she could critique his own work. But Molly Allgood was no student.
As a general rule, the pair kept their love more or less a secret, and when Synge, who was suffering from Hodgkin’s disease, went to convalesce in England, he was filled with worry and suspicion, afraid that a younger “man-about-Dublin” would steal Molly away in his absence. And, though Molly did allow other men to admire her from a distance, she increasingly found Synge’s all-too-frequent absences and the fact that he hovered between sickness and health a bit “too much.” She was, after all, in the prime of life and blessed with good looks, energy, and vitality.
After Molly’s triumphant performance in his play, The Playboy of the Western World, Synge was even more in love, and told Molly: “You are my whole world . . . you that is, and the little shiny new moon . . . .”
When Hodgkin’s claimed Synge’s life in 1909, just weeks shy of his thirty-eighth birthday, Molly was forbidden to go to his funeral by his family.
Though both Molly Allgood and John Synge were real persons, and though Molly was, indeed, Synge’s lover, O’Connor makes it clear that Ghost Light is a work of fiction rather than a biography of a love affair. In fact, at times, the book is all fiction save for the fact that Allgood and Synge were real:
The experiences and personalities of the real Molly and Synge differed from those of my characters in uncountable ways, writes O’Connor. Most of the events in this book never happened at all. Certain biographers will want to beat me with a turf-shovel.
I don’t doubt they will, but the fact that O’Connor made a lot of his facts up didn’t, in any way, dim my enjoyment of his book. I think Ghost Light is am amazing book, and I enjoyed every minute I spent reading it.
The novel opens in 1952, in London, where Molly’s living in a rundown lodging house on the Bayswater Road. Once the toast of the Irish theatre, Molly’s now destitute, and her life revolves around tea, tobacco, and cheap gin. There is, however, one bright spot in Molly’s life: She been hired by the BBC to read a part in a radio play, and even though she knows it’ll be some time before she’s paid, she will be paid – eventually – and the part will jog the memories of those who once saw her and loved her on the Irish stage.
Like many of Sebastian Barry’s books, Ghost Light is a “memory piece.” As Molly walks from Bayswater, across town to the recording studios of the BBC, she thinks about a letter she’s received from a California student who wants 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.
If Molly had anything of value left, given her circumstances, one would think she would have sold it already. And so she has. A second-hand dealer in Russell Square has purchased all of Molly’s possessions deemed to have been valuable – with the exception of one. Molly still has the very first letter Synge ever wrote to her, a letter in which he apologizes for the criticisms he made of her during a rehearsal at the Abbey Theatre:
It was bloody of me and I am sorry, Synge writes. 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.
As Molly walks from her dilapidated rooming house to the BBE broadcasting offices, her mind returns to Dublin in 1908 and her memories of Synge. As she travels the London streets, Molly encounters people and places that remind her of her past, and the reader learns how she met Synge and became his lover. We learn that though she loved him dearly, her relationship with Synge brought Molly more heartbreak than happiness, though it did become the one dominant relationship in Molly’s life.
I thought I would heartily dislike O’Connor’s use of the second person to tell his story, but after reading only two or three pages, it came to seem natural to me. Molly is, after all, speaking to herself. And, using the second person allows O’Connor to layer his story for maximum impact on the reader and to develop a number of disparate themes. We learn about fin de siècle Irish theatre, repressive Irish family life, decline and destitution, the fickle nature of celebrity, and more.
This is a rich novel, with well-developed characters that really come to life. I loved Molly. Her inner voice was radiant, even though it was, at times, filled with self-pity and self-hate. And, she was Irish to her core. This is Molly as she looks at a painting in the National Portrait Gallery:
Heavens to Betsy, what an ugly old trout. Face like a bag of rusted spanners. Imagine, someone paid good money for that glower to be painted. More beauty in the door of a jakes, that’s the God's honest truth. My Jesus Almighty, but there’s hope for us all, Molls. ‘The Duchess of Blandford’. Looks like Mussolini in a wig. Il Duce with udders. God help us.
I found I couldn’t forget Molly, and I felt I understood her pain. Rather than be angry with her when she considers selling Synge’s letter for a bottle of liquor, I understood her destitution, I felt her pain and her poverty, and her need for comfort, even if that comfort was only going to last an hour or two. In Joseph O’Connor’s able hands, Molly Allgood’s a character who simply leaps off the page.
This is a story than goes back and forth in time. I liked that, and I think it worked perfectly in this book. I know some readers like their novels very straightforward and very linear, however, but even those who do will probably like Ghost Light. The jumps in time are so well handled and smooth.
There will be readers who will criticize this book as containing “too much truth” to be a novel, and there will be readers who will criticize it for not being straight biography. I can understand that, but “based on a true story” doesn’t really bother me at all, and it does give O’Connor the opportunity to answer some of the burning questions those of us who love Synge’s plays have always wondered about. Did Synge really, truly love Molly? Did they ever consummate their love? Given the age difference and his ill health, how much did Molly love Synge?
Here’s Molly, in a fictional letter written to Synge from an island off the west coast of Ireland, a place where Molly had gone to learn Irish:
And everything about you gives me the courage I never, ever had and without you I’m like a ghost drifting through some old house of a life and there’s nothing about you I don’t love.
That’s so beautiful that true or not true, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss reading it.
Ghost Light, for me, is a wonderful Irish novel, and the fact that it’s about the theatre and those in the theatre, which I love, and that it revolves around Synge, who’s plays I adore, is just an added bonus. The best thing about the book, however, were the authentic Irish voices:
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.
I’m going to read O’Connor’s two previous books, Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls, both very wonderfully received, and darker books than Ghost Light. I expect to love them both.
Recommended: To those who love the theatre and really well written Irish novels, or simply literary novels of any kind. I studied drama and I act in my local community theatre, so I might have loved this book a bit more than some, but still, theatre lover or not, Joseph O’Connor is an author worth investigating and following.