Skip to main content

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.

Popular posts from this blog

Who was Mary Burns?

On 7th January 1863 Mary Burns was found dead from a suspected heart attack. She was 43 years old. Since her death Mary has received barely any attention despite the fact that she spent over twenty years as the common-law wife of Friedrich Engels, one of the world’s most influential thinkers and the co-founder of Marxism.

Born in 1822, Mary was the oldest surviving child of textile dyer and factory operative, Michael Burns, and Mary Conroy, Irish immigrants from Tipperary. Mary’s parents had married at St. Patrick’s in an area known casually as Irish Town, one of few Catholic churches in Manchester at that time. The year of Mary’s birth and her infancy were significant in that Manchester was still dealing with the aftermath of the event that became known as the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, a peaceful protest of the working-classes on the site of St. Peter’s Fields in which several people were killed and hundreds injured. The Massacre occurred when magistrates, alarmed at the size of t…

Booker Shortlist announced

It's been a while... I know. Dog walking on the Downs, a bit of theatre, a bit of baking, a bit of writing etcetera etcetera. I also managed to read two complete books in the past month, which I was so pleased about. I had not read a whole book for about a year. The first was A Lie About My Father by Scottish poet/writer, John Burnside; a very well written memoir about father and son, but like all memoirs, some unreliability I felt. Poignant and tragic in equal measure. Then my husband returned from Cyprus (too hot for me this time of year, I can barely cope with England!) with Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong. He loved it. And then I read it and also loved it. I had originally picked it up several years ago but didn't get beyond Amiens, where the first section is set, but was really glad I did this time around. Another incredibly well written book in the style of a good Victorian! I felt a bit unsure about bits of Elizabeth, in the later section, but I have never learnt so muc…

Days Without End and Mosul's Avengers

So fed up am I of buying books that I don't finish, that I decided I would go to the local library for a copy of Sebastian Barry's latest novel, Days Without End, which has just been awarded the Costa Prize. Unfortunately, I could only borrow it on the proviso that it was return by 1 February. I returned it the day after, without having finished it. I was about three quarters through, and will now have to go out and buy it for the final quarter. I loved Barry's The Secret Scripture, and on every publication of a new work, his star rises. Days Without End follows two boys, one descended from native Americans, and the other having arrived on one of the notorious coffin ships from famine struck Sligo. The tale is brave, funny, touching, but most of all Barry has achieved the perfect pitch. It is quite remarkable.

Another remarkable work comes in the form of reportage in the New Yorker (February 6, 2017) The Avengers of Mosul, by Luke Mogelson 'A Reporter at Large'.