“Ghost light. An Ancient superstition among people of the stage. One lamp must always be left burning when the theatre is dark, so the ghosts can perform their own plays.”
There are some books that would be better not reviewed, for they are so self-aware that they review themselves. Ghost Light is such a book. Its title, with analogies to plot, atmosphere, and some of the longing melancholy that a reader will take away, is just the start of a stunning novel in which no words are wasted and all imagery and metaphors reflect back on the central ambiance. It’s a book that is most clearly defined by its atmosphere, its feeling, rather than what happens, and as a piece of sustained atmospheric writing, it succeeds on every level. Hauntingly sad, yet packed with wit and invention, reading Ghost Light is a little bit like gazing through a microscope at the petal of a flower or the intricacy of an animal skeleton: awe-inspiring in it’s apparently simple complexity.
O’Connor takes as his subject the romance of leading Irish playwright JM Synge and his muse Molly Allgood (stage name Maire O’Neill). His letters to her survived, hers to him do not. So what O’Connor does is use this gap to invent Molly as an almost entirely fictional character and to present their relationship through her eyes. “Certain biographers will want to beat me with a turf shovel,” O’Connor notes in his Afterword, but the liberties he takes with accepted historical truth are common in fiction. This is a retelling in spirit rather than fact, and the author makes a stunning performance of it. Like much good fiction, it uses the spectre of what we already know will happen to add poignancy to events on the page.
We meet Molly Allgood as an elderly actress living alone in a lodging house in London. Two failed marriages and the death of son in the war have left her alone and poor, living a shoddy life in run-down post-war England. Yet she’s unfettered in attitude, a tough old girl with a spark of life that cannot be extinguished. “She is the kind of woman who persists in the face of hard evidence. It has caused her much grief, this trait.”
As she walks the streets of 1950s London, passing time before heading to the BBC for a now rare casting in a radio play, she reflects on her past, on the dazzling career that has faded, and the ghosts of the life she might have lived. Her journey calls to mind both Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and her namesake Molly Bloom, and she certainly owes something to Bloom’s capricious lust for life.
The narration switches back and forth between this 1950s London and Dublin in 1907, when a young Molly is engaged in an affair with JM Synge. He’s older, serious, a troubled genius with ‘martyr-sad eyes’ from a wealthy protestant family who is, in his own words, “slowly roasted on the flames of [his mother’s] widowhood”. She’s forthright and flirtatious, a Catholic girl from the Dublin slums dreaming of stardom in America. He is her ‘Tramp’, she his ‘Changeling’. Their affair is uncertain, opposed on all sides, tender and affectionate. He is often distant; she can be impetuous. They have much in common and yet everything – an age gap of sixteen years, social, religious and economic disparities, the opposition of their families and colleagues, Synge’s ill health – works to keep them apart. At one point Molly reads a rhyme that they find in an old book: “She reads the final couple aloud. He chuckles at her pronunciation. In his accent, it rhymes. In hers, it does not. For less have millions starved.” They are the classic impossible couple, part Romeo and Juliet, part Pygmalion and the Statue, their relationship demonstrates some of the divisions in Ireland at the time. An Ireland where riots accompany the premier of Synge’s latest play, The Playboy of the Western World, for its supposed slight on Irish womanhood, “libel on the peasantry,” and vulgarity.
Ghost Light is a novel about, and inspired by, Dublin. Ulysees runs in and out of much of it, WB Yeates is a character and the Abbey Theatre its setting. It is an Ireland that is filled with life and excitement, the land of Molly’s youth and exuberance, where everything was possible and romance blossomed. This raucous land is contrasted with the dreary London landscape of Molly’s present, where, she reflects that A Streetcar Named Desire would have been named “A Bus Called Passing Interest” were it by an English author, bomb scarred buildings loom grey and empty, and vagrancy is rife. At one point Molly sees an advert in a laundrette window which reads:
CLEAN ROOM TO RENT
SUIT COUPLE (MARRIEDS ONLY)
It’s only the BBC, that great beacon of art, that seems to rise from the ashes of the war, only the BBC that offers all the glamour and stature of the Abbey Theatre back home.
Ghost Light is inherently a sombre novel, illuminated by moments of bleak humour and a romance to root for. Those who enjoy second person narration will love the use O’Connor puts it to here, employing it to convey all of the mental turmoil and self accusation that Molly puts herself through in much the same way as David Peace used it to convey the psychological troubles of Brian Clough in The Damned Utd. The meandering passages in the 1950s drift in and out of this second person, as though a ghostly apparition is talking to Molly. There are passages that take one’s breath away: an unsent letter from Molly to Synge, a comic one-act play that sends up Synge’s pretentions to being the playwright of the common man, an elucidation of the fragile process of writing:
“And at some point he realises he has twenty strong pages. Then what becomes important is bravery. To go on might yield nothing – everything can die. Anyone can make a beginning; to embark on a second act takes the courage. It is like building a house, he says. The smallest error is fatal. Every course of brick-work must be angled correctly or the whole will collapse in the end. But fifty pages, sixty, he knows if the impossible is happening. The people summoned into being by the old power of words might begin to unfurl, to walk about and love, to say things he himself would never dream of uttering, in voices not his but theirs. It is like watching the muzzle-flash of a gun through fog yet wanting the billets to hit you, he says. Essential to hold your nerve, not to let the excitement of the alchemy throw you into crowd-pleasing stupidities or grandiosities. Who can say where they come from, these people who never lived? But he is one of the intermediaries they come to. He seems to think of himself in the third person, as perhaps all do from time to time. Is it possible he sees himself as a character?”
Ghost Light is an intense read, driven by the power of the writing and the compelling narration, rather than plot. It is a book to read slowly, to revisit regularly and not to worry if at first one does not engage with the characters. At times, O’Connor’s turn of phrase is jaw-droppingly good. There are pages one could read over and over again and not grow tired of. Lovers of lyrical prose will love Ghost Light. It has a feel to it, a feel that is replicated in every phrase and word, an empty stage with a single light burning, and an audience full of people longing for those ghosts to turn up and play for them.
“Does the body remember? When the mind has forgotten?...And if dreams unmask our longings, as the wise have claimed since the Greeks, why is it that the dead are so often silent when we dream them? Don’t we want them to speak? What would they say?”