20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, Harvill Secker, historical fiction, Joseph O'Connor, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Shadowplay’ by Joseph O’Connor

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 320 pages; 2019.

Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay must be one of the most underrated books of the year. It won the Eason Novel of the Year at the 2019 Irish Book Awards, but it doesn’t seem to have garnered much attention in the UK or elsewhere. And yet this is a truly amazing book, one of my favourite reads of the year, and deserving of a much larger audience.

Set largely in London in 1878, it brims with atmosphere and menace and pure Victorian gothic drama.

It takes real-life characters — Bram Stoker, the Irishman who wrote Dracula; Henry Irving, an English actor and theatre director, who was later knighted; and Ellen Terry, the leading stage actress of the era — and follows their complicated, intertwined lives as they work together at the Lyceum Theatre, building a successful season from pretty much nothing.

As they battle to keep emotions in check (actors are prone to drama, after all), to balance the books and draw in the crowds, it is largely Stoker who holds everything together. A struggling writer (he did not become successful until after his death), he acts as Irving’s personal assistant, dealing with his petty squabbles, grievances and short temper, while also managing the theatre’s finances.

His marriage to renowned English beauty Florence Balcombe brings him into high society circles, but Stoker is never quite accepted by the upper classes. O’Connor paints him as a loyal and conscientious man, often derided by others who look down upon him.

Original structure

Like other novels by O’Connor, the story has a loose and experimental structure. The narrative, told from Stoker’s point of view, is comprised of diary entries, letters, private notes and sections written “in the voice of Ellen Terry”.

It is wildly imaginative, filled with rich historical detail and drips with witty one-liners.

And it’s hard not to keep seeing hints of Dracula in what Stoker conveys, such as this description of Irving, whom he slowly comes to realise is a vain, narcissistic and deeply unpleasant man.

Henry Irving stopped mid scene and stared down at them grimly, his eyes glowing red in the gaslight. Paint dribbling down the contours of his face, like dye splashed on a map, droplets falling on his boots, his doublet and long locks drenched in sweat, his silver painted wooden sword glittering in the gaslight, shimmering with his chainmail in the lightning.

As well as charting the rise and fall of the theatre, and providing insight into the lives and loves of the trio who worked so closely together, it’s a striking and evocative portrait of Victorian London, where long dark nights, fog-shrouded streets and wet cobblestones give rise to ghostly apparitions. This is the time of Jack the Ripper who stalks the East End, and O’Connor plays with this to create heightened tension for the reader.

A truly immersive read, Shadowplay represents storytelling at its wonderful best. It’s largely character-driven, but it is the prose and the structure of the novel that elevates it into something rather extraordinary. I don’t usually re-read books, but I will make an exception for this one: yes, it really is that good.

This is my 14th book for #20BooksOfSummer. Yes, I know I’m about three months late penning this review, but it was one of those books that I wanted to think about before rushing to write about it. Then, unfortunately, life just got in the way. I actually ordered this copy in hardcover from Dubray Books in Dublin because it had red-tinted page edges and was signed by the author. I must say, though, that O’Connor’s covers always look a bit fey. As much as I like the gold and black contrast on this one, the image of the woman makes this book look like romantic fiction of some kind, when it’s actually Victorian gothic with a literary bent.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Joseph O'Connor, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The Thrill of it All’ by Joseph O’Connor


Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 416 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If anything is ripe for satire it is rock journalism and rock biographies. They’re so filled with clichés and stereotypes, how could you not want to send them up?

Film-makers have already done so with the 1984 cult classic “mockumentary” This is Spinal Tap, which satirises the so-called wild antics of a fictionalised heavy metal band, and the more recent BBC4 TV series, Brian Pern: A Life in Rock, which lampoons Peter Gabriel’s career (with Peter Gabriel’s endorsement).

Now Irish writer Joseph O’Connor has entered the fray with his latest novel, The Thrill of it All, which is the fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s.

My name is Robbie Goulding. I was once a musician. For five years in the 1980s I played guitar with the Ships. This memoir has been long in the making.

Now this is where I offer a caveat. I’m a huge music fan. I spent my teenage years and all of my twenties amassing the greatest collection of rock cassettes (remember them?) and CDs known to man, I went to countless gigs and had subscriptions to all the leading music magazines of the time, including Rolling Stone and Q. I viewed this as a kind of “male” hobby because none of my female friends were really into music — certainly not to the same extent I was. I would pour over sleeve notes and CD covers, learning all the connections between producers and session musicians, and explore new genres and discover new bands in much the same way I now do with books.

But when I read novels about music they never quite work for me. I think that’s because music is so special and ephemeral and subjective, how can you possibly translate that into the written word? How can you capture the way it makes you feel? And it probably doesn’t help that over the years I’ve read way too many non-fiction books about musicians and bands (here’s just a handful reviewed on this site), so it always feels a bit superfluous: why invent something when you could just read the real thing?

So, with that in mind, I picked up this book not really expecting to get along with it. But I needn’t have worried. O’Connor, who is a music fan himself (I actually saw him play guitar and sing at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre when he did a special gig with lots of Irish musicians called The Music of Ghost Light in 2011), doesn’t try to write so much about the music but the people who make it. He covers all the clichés — the lousy gigs with just two people in the audience, the struggle to get a record deal, the infighting, the sex, the drugs and so on — but he does it with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek but without ever turning it into farce or mockery. It actually feels like a book with a heart: you care about the people in it.

Life as a rock star

The Thrill of it All spans 25 years and tells the story of Irish-born teenager Robbie Goulding’s climb to fame and subsequent slide into obscurity. It’s largely set in Luton, England, a light industrial town 30 miles north of London, where he forms a band with Vietnamese-born Francis Mulvey, a Marc Bolan-type figure, who is charismatic and troubled but has a great singing voice.

When I first encountered Francis, in college in the eighties, he would pitch up for lectures sporting more lip frost and blusher than Bianca Jagger at Studio 54. Apart from on television, he was the first male I ever saw in eye shadow, a weird shade of magenta he sourced by trawling theatrical-supply shops. ‘They use it for murderers and whores,’ he’d explain, with the insouciance of one on terms with both.

Joining them is cellist (and love interest) Sarah-Thérèse Sherlock and her twin brother Sean on drums.

When the book opens we know that Robbie and Fran have had a falling out and that Fran is elusive but still famous in a kind of David Bowie-type of way — there are countless “unauthorised biographies, a feature-length documentary, profiles and fanzines and blog sites and newsgroups” about him. But we don’t really know how they got to this point: that is all slowly revealed over the course of the narrative which is made up of Robbie’s own thoughts, interviews — conducted on radio and TV chat shows in the past and by Robbie’s daughter (and editor) Mollie Goulding specifically for the memoir — lyrics and diaries.

It charts the Ship’s steady rise in the UK and then its big success in America, where the band is courted by the rich and famous and where they make so much money they don’t know what to do with it. The excesses reveal themselves in typically predictable ways — um, drugs, anybody? — and before long it all goes to hell in a hand basket.

But even though O’Connor is deliberately working with stereotypes, his characters are richly drawn and always believable. They have hearts and souls, worries and troubles, dreams and ambitions. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that you could take any successful band from the 1980s and simply change the names, and this story would more or less match the one in this novel, that’s how realistic and spot-on it feels.

The narrative, which fast-forwards and rewinds (see what I did there) over time, is filled with vivid detail — of the era, of the music, the fashions and the politics of the day. It’s also peppered with great one-liners and playful, comic scenes that had me tittering in joyful recognition. It’s never cheesy, but often honest and raw.

I’ve seen some reviews bill The Thrill of it All as being a book for anyone who’s dreamt of being a rock star, but I’d say it’s appeal is far wider than that: it’s for anyone who loves music — blues, ska, New Wave, punk and rock especially.

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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Joseph O'Connor, literary fiction, naval, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Star of the Sea’ by Joseph O’Connor


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 410 pages; 2003.

This is quite simply a stunning achievement.

Joseph O’Connor‘s Star of the Sea is a gripping story set on a New York-bound ship filled with hundreds of refugees fleeing the Irish potato famine in 1847. But this is not the usual “Irish potato famine fare” you might expect. It’s a complete reworking, not just of the 19th century disaster that was the famine, but of the naval-based novel and, indeed, the novel in general.

O’Connor’s tome is incredibly detailed and multi-layered. There are stories within stories, each one marking a different place on the social spectrum: the cunning criminal; the downtrodden maid looking to start a new life; an American journalist who records it all; and a victimised landlord and his unhappy wife. The beauty of O’Connor’s magnificent novel is that each of these vastly different characters is inextricably linked in ways that they will never know.

Star of the Sea is a mesmerising tale that will take readers to new, uncharted territory. It is sad, funny, violent, depressing, grim, shameful, shocking and uplifting. O’Connor, the brother of Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, weaves a wonderful, clever narrative together, swinging effortlessly between past and present, on board the ship and in Ireland. But it’s the ending which will leave you gasping for more as you suddenly comprehend how all the different strands of the story have come together without you ever realising.

More please.