Joseph O’Connor’s “Ghost Light” (2010)

Ghost Light is a novel written by Joseph O’Connor and published in 2010. O’Connor is also the author of the renowned 2002 novel Star of the Sea, which similarly to Ghost Light, is an historical-metafiction. Ghost Light centres on the character of Molly Allgood (1885-1952), a non-fictional Irish actress. Molly, a Catholic working class Irish girl * and star of Yeats and Lady Gregory’s Abbey Theatre, attracts the attention of the Protestant upper-class playwright, John Millington Synge. J.M. Synge is best known for his 1907 play The Playboy of the Western World that sparked anger and even a riot at its Dublin opening night. As Synge is much older than Molly their relationship is frowned upon, particularly by Synge’s proud and rather affected mother. The narration is split between Molly’s memories of her youth as an actress in Dublin, her time with John and Molly’s present day existence in London as an older lady, still trying to reignite her success as an actress, living in a decaying bedsit and largely dependent on alcohol.

O’Connor’s depiction of Molly is commendable – though she is haunted by loneliness, alcoholism and the death of her lover, Molly retains her ladylike demeanor, she still rises in the morning and puts on her best clothes, applies rouge to her cheeks and lips and walks London town. Although there is also a sense that she has succumbed to dementia and alcoholism as she describes a BBC interview that she appears to have imagined as well as appearing to pass out drunk in public; O’Connor manages to portray Molly as tragic and lonely without making her seem pathetic or completely erratic to herself. O’Connor’s narrative style can also be held responsible for the powerful effect it has on the reader; you become Molly, you embody the sophisticated elder lady appearing to be having a leisurely stroll around London but in fact pawning off a past lover’s letters for money to drink. You become the young, beautiful, spirited actress touring America, the love-struck fiancé and the grief-stricken lover.

O’Connor’s novel is a perfect study of the imperfect human condition. Rather than be the simple tragic love-story that it offers to be, it defies this with a stylistic narrative and its intricate portrayal of Molly Allgood’s haunted elder life. The novel setting is also one worth mentioning, Molly’s youth and her relationship with John are set in the heart of Dublin at a very exciting time for literature. The time of the Irish Literary Revival; Yeats, the Abbey Theatre, Lady Gregory, Maud Gonne, George Moore and G.B. Shaw. O’Connor takes us all around Dublin at this famous time, Killiney Hill, Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) and elsewhere are the backdrop to the story so if this interests you then the novel is definitely worth a look. The novel, despite its fictional story-line is based on the real affair between J.M. Synge and Molly Allgood and is a fascinating account of the life, though tragic, left behind by the famous playwright.

* All opinions in this article are based on information taken from the novel, they are not necessarily based on real-life fact of either Molly Allgood or J.M. Synge.

    • Chris Mills
    • October 7th, 2012

    I’ve been meaning to read this for ages! Really must get around to it soon.

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