Author, Book review, Fiction, Harvill Secker, historical fiction, Ireland, Joseph O'Connor, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Ghost Light’ by Joseph O’Connor


Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 256 pages; 2010.

I’m not one for making predictions, or backing horses, but if Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light doesn’t make the longlist for this year’s Booker Prize, I’ll eat my hat. This is an accomplished novel that should firmly cement O’Connor in the cannon of contemporary Irish literary fiction. Of course, he’s already achieved extraordinary success with Star of the Sea and its follow-up Redemption Falls, but Ghost Light, released earlier this month, feels as if he’s “arrived” in the sense that he can now take his rightful place alongside the likes of fellow countrymen Colm Toibin, John Banville, Sebastian Barry and the late (great) John McGahern.

Ghost Light charts the rise and fall of real life Irish Catholic actress Maire O’Neill (1885-1952), who performed under the stage name Molly Allgood. She was engaged to playwright John Millington Synge, a Protestant 14 years her senior, at the time of his death to Hodgkin’s disease in 1909. Their relationship was frowned upon by pretty much everyone, including their families and Synge’s great friend William Butler Yeats, with whom he co-founded Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.

O’Connor takes pains in his “Acknowledgements and Caveat” to point out that while his novel features characters from real life, the story is a work of fiction. “The experiences and personalities of Molly and Synge differed from those of my characters in unaccountable ways,” he writes. “Most of the events in this book never happened at all. Certain biographers will want to beat me with a turf-shovel.”

Does it really matter that O’Connor has taken liberties with the truth? I think not. He has crafted an amazing story, from basic facts, and given life to a woman that history has sadly neglected.

We first meet Molly in London in 1952, where she resides in a lodging house, and as she makes her way across town towards an afternoon appointment at a BBC recording studio, we learn about her previous life in Dublin in 1908 when she was the star of the Abbey Theatre. By jumping backwards and forwards in time in tune with Molly’s memory, we discover how she met Synge, became his lover and spent much of their relationship waiting for him to commit himself to her (it’s no spoiler to say he merely kept her hanging on for what appears to be no good reason) and we come to realise the direness of her present circumstances, so close to destitution that she is prepared to sell her most precious possession — a love letter from Synge — in exchange for a bottle of booze.

What I loved most about this book is Molly’s inner voice, which swings between pity and self-loathing, to a terribly wicked potty-mouthed sense of humour ripe with Dublin vernacular. Take this interior monologue as she looks at paintings 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.

But it’s her desperation, her poverty and her dependence on alcohol that makes her story such an incredibly moving one. (In an exchange on Twitter, O’Connor’s agent, Carole Blake, told me that “Joe says he fell in love with her”.) I came to the end of this book feeling as if I knew Molly personally, that I had witnessed her pain and her shame, her glorious success and her confusion at being passed over by lovers and theatre-goers alike. I wanted to put the book down and have a good old howl. And almost 10 days after finishing the novel I have spent my days thinking about Molly and her tragic life, always a good sign that I’ve read something meaningful and brilliant.

Finally, I’d like to add a caveat of my own: the story is told in the second person, which can take some getting used to, and O’Connor experiments with the novel’s form by including an entire chapter written as if it’s an act in a Synge play (which, in my view, is quite hilarious, seeing as it is a bit of a piss-take on Synge’s own tendency toward “Oirishness”). But the book is so bursting with character that I think even those readers who favour traditional, straightforward narratives will find Ghost Light an entertaining and accessible read. Let’s just hope this year’s Booker judges feel the same way.

21 thoughts on “‘Ghost Light’ by Joseph O’Connor”

  1. This is an incredibly sensitive review that *really* makes me want to pick up the book. I enjoyed Star of the Sea, but it sounds very much as though O’Connor has transcended that with this book. Thanks!


  2. Hi Kim
    With an endorsement like this – likening it to three of my favourite authors, Toibin, Barry and Banville – I’ll overlook the popular romance cover design, which would have put me right off if not for your review!


  3. I didn’t realise that he had a new book out. I enjoyed Star of the Sea, but it didn’t have that star quality. It sounds as though this one does and so I’ll try to get hold of a copy. Thanks for drawing it to my attention!


  4. I know what you mean about the cover – but I always take the dust jackets off hardback books when I read them, so it wasnt a problem! I think youd enjoy this. I found it unbearably sad in places, but I also chuckled a lot throughout.


  5. It seems to have slipped in under the radar all right, with little or no promotion. I bought it at Waterstones Picadilly store where it was tucked away in a very small end-shelf display. Meanwhile the rest of the shop seemed to be wall-to-wall Yann Martel!
    OConnor is speaking at the London Literature Festival next month; am looking forward to seeing him.


  6. Not sure this could be compared to Star of the Sea, its so very different stylistically and subject-matter wise. But its a memorable read and it was one of those books I tried to draw out as long as possible because I simply didnt want it to end.


  7. I have Star of the Sea on my shelf but have not got round to reading it. I dont have a problem authors using real people in fictional settings as I find the authors themselves to be quite upfront about this and whats fiction and whats not.


  8. Wow, that is a good and comprehensive review, thanks, I liked your insights, sometimes it is nce to have an idea of the book before buying it, I think you promote reading by what you are doing.


  9. What a lovely review, which makes me want to read this even if it hadn’t already sounded appealing. It’s listed on Amazon over here but only in audio format for some odd reason. Maybe I’ll read Star of the Sea to start since that is one I do have on hand.


  10. I think that the word “novel” or “fiction” usually makes it quite clear that even though the people may have once been alive and very real, the events that unfold may not actually have happened. Still, I guess O’Connor had to spell it out — just in case there were people out there who believed every word. And he’s such a convincing storyteller it would be easy to swallow it whole. For instance, I’m still trying to figure out if it is true that Molly is buried in Brompton Cemetery which is within walking distance of where I live!


  11. Thank you for a great review. I loved Star of the Sea but still have to acquire Redemption Falls and now this. It will be interesting to revisit the Synge connection as I studied his plays as part of English Lit O Level many years ago – all I can remember is a lot of wailing and keening…


  12. Ooooh…thanks for that lovely review, Kim. It whetted my appetite even more for this new Joseph O’Connor masterpiece, but I will wait until it’s in paperback (maybe by Christmas??) or one of those humongous trade paperbacks often found in airports.
    I find his style does vary from book to book. Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls were similar, but not the same and Inishowen was a different style completely. I’d like to read The Salesman and Desperadoes to see what his style was like back then.
    But Star of the Sea has got to be the book I’ve given the most to people over the years. Most people I know haven’t read it before I force it into their hands at Christmas and Birthdays and most come back to tell me that it was fabulous.


  13. I tried to read Desperadoes about 10 years ago and just could not get into it.
    Mind you, I loved his book of essays – The Secret Life of the Irish Male – although at the time I wondered what my very new irish boyfriend (now long-term partner) was trying to tell me when he gave me a copy of the book to read. Was there a hidden message?? Apparently, he tells me, there wasn’t. 😉


  14. I’ve not read any of his plays, but I did read his book about the Aran Islands, which was absolutely fascinating. Am tempted to read Playboy of the Western World now…


  15. The excerpt is funny, isn’t it? She has the most amazingly funny inner dialogue — I really love her voice, so rough and ready, and in complete contrast to the way she actually speaks to living, breathing people, all very polite and charming. The contrast between the two is striking and what makes her seem such a believable warm and funny character.


  16. Had the best surprise ever last night: we arrived in Bristol at my MIL (before we head over to Suffolk this weekend and move in) and found a copy of Ghost Light in among my other post!(thank you, by the way for the copy The Unnamed and the lovely note. I am really looking forward to reading it)
    I entered a Random House give-away before the book was released but never heard anything when the contest ended, so I thought I hadn’t won. But I had, I had! So excited. After the stressy few last weeks, this was just what I needed. 🙂


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