Ghost Light

This review recently appeared on Pereno World.

Great timing for my posting of this review on Joseph O'Connor's current novel, Ghost Light, as he has also written a feature in today's Observer charting how, in the aftermath of his mother's death in a car crash, he went to Nicaragua.


Joseph O'Connor is known for a number of things - he is the brother of Irish singer Sinead O'Connor, he used to be a journalist with The Sunday Tribune and Esquire Magazine, and he is a playwright. He is also a novelist. O'Connor has penned more than a handful of works, as well as the short story collection 'True Believers'. His 1991 novel, Cowboys and Indians, made the shortlist of the prestigious Whitbread Prize. He is, though, perhaps best known for his 2002 international best-seller, Star of the Sea, which he followed up five years later with Redemption Falls. His latest is the eerily named Ghost Light, which centres on the real life Irish actress, Maire O'Neill (born Molly Allgood). It is loosely based on her romance with the Irish playright John Millington Synge.

The novel opens in mid-fifties London - a city struggling to rebuild itself in the aftermath of the second world war. O'Neill, by now an old woman and struggling radio actress, is living in a room in a boarding house that also houses the Irish immigrant workmen. O'Neill spends her days trying to get money for drink, for food, but mainly in a reverie of times long gone. It is through these reveries that we are offered the story of her romance with Synge, a story that is gently and expertly revealed. As a young girl and budding actress O'Neill starts off at the famous Abbey Theatre, run by Augusta, Lady Gregory and closely associated with the writers of the Irish Literary Revival, Sean O'Casey, W.B. Yeats, and Synge. Yet O'Neill is from the slums of Dublin, Glengeary, where her mother runs a second-hand furniture shop. It is also the area in which O'Connor himself grew up, giving him the advantage of being able to all the more convey a poignant and credible sense of place, with a convincing dialect and turn of phrase. Yet Synge is the son of a landowning Anglo-Irish mother who, predictably, disapproves strongly of O'Neill, and who exerts a domineering hold over her sickly son. Yet he and O'Neill find freedom away from Dublin when they go and stay in Wexford - the idyll of nature where societal conventions can be ignored.

This is a beautiful work, bringing to life a romance that grew, and that also features as many disappointments, as the Irish Literary Revival itself. O'Connor, well used to drawing on historical material in his work, has also upped the intertextuality stakes in Ghost Light - taking the word 'novel' to mean just that, in which he weaves other discourses - newspaper extracts and Irish ballads. I am sure this novel, like his previous, will make many a prize shortlist over the coming year.

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