Book Review: Ghost Light (Joseph O’Connor)

‘Ghost light,’ writes O’Connor, deep into the last few dozen pages of his offering of studied Irish dialect and Edwardian sensibility, is 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.’ The main characters, based loosely on a historical playwright and his somewhat younger actress fiancée, are impressed here in time.

Ghost Light (Vintage, 2011) opens at a sad scene in a lonely lodging-house in London in 1952. We observe the beginnings of a day in the life of the ageing actress Molly Allgood, sometimes known as Molly O’Neill or by the stage name of Maire O’Neill. In her heyday and in her youth, Molly became the rising star, the darling of the stage. It twisted the innocence and expressionate nature of herself, in the interpretation, and Molly became drunk on it all. Three versions of Molly are recounted, though not in linear narrative, as we progress. The beginnings of Molly’s day in question, in late October 1952, see her navigate the London streets towards an appointment at the BBC: hungry and desperately in need of the work, though too proud to admit her circumstances, her journey is interspliced with reverie.

We are transported to the Dublin of 1908. Molly is an actress at a theatre company whose leading playwright is the acclaimed John Millington Synge (pronounced ‘Sing’). O’Connor documents the playwright’s sometimes difficult relationship with Molly Allgood/O’Neill: Synge struggles to explain how it is, exactly, he wishes his actors to say his lines (to which Molly bristles, earthily); the two lead characters take stilted walks in the depths of the Irish landscape together; they find themselves engaged in a deeper relationship, where the edges of both characters begin to soften; they become engaged to marry, though Synge is grievously ill, and his early death will later prove to haunt Molly.

There is a ghost light left on in her, for sure, forty years into the future, past the war years and into the shifting social landscape that ensues. In the continual toggling of time and times, Synge’s relationships are explored: with his friend, the poet, Yeats; with his patron, Lady Gregory; with his stiffly unforgiving mother, with whom he lives. Molly must also contend with these characters, as well as with the spectre of her sister, Sara/Sally’s, reputation, she also being an actress of some repute, making her way in the brave new world of America. A strand of O’Connor’s writing focuses on Irish emigration, on the matter of making new. In the final reckoning, however, it is the ghost light of the past that pervades in Molly.

In his notes, O’Connor makes reference to his study and interest in authentic Irish dialect and dialogue, and this aspect does come through in the writing very clearly. In places, the text is bright with such particularity and the reader might easily find the nuance of the accent tripping through the mind and from the pages. At other times, however, the text is thick and too opaque to fully comprehend. In a chapter entitled ‘Scene from a half-imagined stage play’ (written as if it were such a concoction of life as acted), O’Connor offers the following bewildering dialogue, for example:

A root up their holes for them and God send they get another. Ah me dear dark Erin and the bould Fenian men. I’d rain bombs on every cur and bitch of them for a pack of huer’s melts.

Thankfully, these instances are rare. Where the writing does stand out more, and favourably, is in O’Connor’s somewhat beautiful evocation of the scenescape. He writes, of Synge and Molly’s walking in County Wicklow:

Crushed butterwort and heather and the odour of mountain chives. Sheep-shit, honeysuckle, bog myrtle and rose-root; the sweetness of wet wild strawberries. In the distance, breasting the coast, the southbound train from Dublin leaves an after-thought of smoke in its wake. The trundling of its engine is borne faintly to them on a breeze that smells of the peat and the dulse. A shrieked, mournful hoot as it chugs into a tunnel gouged years ago through the groin of Eagle Mountain.

O’Connor’s literary constructions, however, sometimes only serve to frustrate or confuse: the back and forth in time is not an issue, it being a device that prompts the reflective narrative, but the author’s choice of tense and points of view switches is beyond the exactness of knowing. There may be rhyme and reason, in the analysis, but it is an unnecessary distraction which, in the greater scheme of things, must be tolerated.

What also needs entrusting to faith is the difficulty in perceiving the incarnations of Molly Allgood/O’Neill as potentially relating to the same character throughout. In her youth, in her spiky, vocal and volatile self, we meet a young woman caught up in the possibility of love in starched sensibilities of pre-First World War Edwardian tours and in Ireland. Later, after Synge’s death, and much later in the non-linear narrative, Molly has transformed into something of a diva character, touring America with her stony dresser and assistant, Moody. In between it all, Molly is her sixty-five year-old lonely self in 1952, hungry and heading for the BBC in the very twilight of her fading days. Molly does not resonate so easily throughout.

There is repeated reference to the differences between her upbringing in the poorer part (‘the slums’) of Dublin and, in contrast, to Synge’s life in the affluent suburb of Kingstown. This, and their age difference of nearly twenty years, the differences of their religious upbringings, and their initial outlooks on life and professional positions, is all sewn into the starchy socio-political complexities of early twentieth century life. This all said, Molly never really truly seems to adjust after Synge’s untimely and early death, diseased and suffering though he is. She carries his ghost light within her till the end.

The relationship between the two main characters cannot be said, by this reader, to be in any way passionate. Perhaps it is a testament to the times portrayed, but even the love letter touch of the dialogue and the physical words written (as fictionalised) by the two fail to really affect the reading senses. Where O’Connor does seem to touch a nerve of love and compassion, however, is in a scene at the BBC, late on, shortly before Molly performs in a live radio play: a young and aspiring actress, a devoted fan, is introduced to the older woman, by the younger woman’s mother, and Molly offers advice and a gift. It is simple and beautiful, in its own way.

Ghost Light has an oscillation, a never-stillness, at its heart (in its narrative devices of tenses and points of view; in the author’s predilection for name shifts — which can cause confusion: Sara/Sally, Allgood/O’Neill; in time and times). It has beauty in its descriptions and it has a certain authority, as assumed, albeit sometimes bewildering, in its dialects portrayed. Despite its occasional difficulties in the connections of characters and the correlation of the present to the past, Joseph O’Connor has created a work that may prove to shine a light through the sheets of future time.
 
 

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