Ghost Light: A Novel Hardcover – Feb 1 2011
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“A great ambitious novel about love and loss. Joseph O’Connor has the magic touch, and I can’t imagine many better—or braver—novels coming out this year.” —Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin
“A brilliant novel.” —Joseph O’Neil, author of Netherland
“When I think of Ghost Light, the words climb over each other to be first in the queue: brilliant, beautiful, exhilarating, heartbreaking, masterly. It’s that good.” —Roddy Doyle, author of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
“It has an astonishing command of voice and period detail, and offers an intimacy with the lives of others that is rare in fiction.” —Colm Tóibín, author of Brooklyn
“A spellbinding read.” —Aisling Foster, The Times (London)
“Ghost Light is a tender and compassionate love story, and a fine stepping stone to the majesty of Synge.” —Times Literary Supplement
“Remarkable, radiant and captivating . . . On top of the biographical information concerning these two, Synge and his Molly, Joseph O’Connor has imposed a fictional overlay, and makes a vivid performance of it . . . Deeply and resolutely imagined, Ghost Light casts its heroine as a charming and robust, playful and wayward young girl, committed to the well-being of the rather difficult and gloomy JM Synge. Molly Allgood, in this version, has a good deal of Molly Bloom in her make-up, and a lively intelligence to boot . . . In this incarnation, [she] is a figure of great gaiety and aplomb; and O’Connor’s novel carries all the pungency and resonance of a particular era of the past.” —Patricoa Craig, The Independent
“A moving tale.” —The Sunday Telegraph
“An entertaining read that carries a touching tale.” —The Economist
“Masterful . . . With his previous novels, Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls, O’Connor carved out a unique way of playing his storyteller’s hand over a wide landscape, with the use of invented documentation and textual adventure. Ghost Light brings that achievement to a new dimension, more specifically located and yet all the more masterful in its management of re-imagined lives and the time they inhabit . . . The writing is lyrical and moving.’ —Hugo Hamilton, The Financial Times
“With his usual deftness and intelligence, O’Connor brings to life the intense love affair between young actress Molly Allgood and the great Irish playwright JM Synge . . . Brilliant.” —The Daily Mirror
“Joseph O’Connor’s seventh novel, Ghost Light, will give days of pleasure to tens and tens of thousands of readers. It is a great love story, with extras: a virtuoso display of literary talent, a tribute to the Hiberno-English heritage of lore and lyricism and an interpretation of the Irish literary revival as the fruit of settler and native, Protestant and Catholic . . . One of the novel’s great achievements is not just to display imaginative power but also to show how the imagination works . . . A stroke of genius.” —Adrian Frazier, Irish Times
“Engrossing stuff . . . Beautifully written and charming.” —The Independent on Sunday
“What shines in the end is O’Connor’s precise style bolstered by quick flashes of his wicked humour. Ghost Light is a careful, thoughtful story, the worlds of which are impeccably rendered.” —Irish Examiner
“Ghost Light is a sad and stirring story of love and loss, and O’Connor skillfully brings to life a brief affair that burned brightly and for Molly, was never extinguished.” —Claire O’Mahony, Irish Sunday Tribune
“A tender, haunting tale . . . An original and moving love story.” —Marie Claire
“O’Connor has fashioned a deeply moving, beautifully written story . . . Admirers of his writing will take pleasure not only in the ambitious range of Ghost Light and its depth of feeling but also in the nods in the direction of the author’s immediately preceding novels, Redemption Falls, and, before that, Star of the Sea . . . Ghost Light stands up to scrutiny on its own terms. It is a profoundly sad story, but triumphant.” —Scotland Herald
“The author displays typical imaginative virtuosity and emotional depth . . . As well as being impressively well crafted, the novel is wreathed in language of Joycean richness. [O’Connor’s] prose is tuned to a singular lyrical frequency.” —The Sunday Times
“Superbly written, magically evocative novel.” —The Scotsman
“Ghost Light is a spirited novel . . . Like her namesake Molly Bloom, Allgood is an earthy, wily and sexually magnetic creation but O’Connor’s real feat is in his careful deployment of Hiberno-English by which he not only doffs his cap to Synge but gives flesh and blood to Molly’s neglected life story.” —The Metro
“Ghost Light will give days of pleasure to tens and tens of thousands of readers. It is a great love story, with extras: a virtuoso display of literary talent, a tribute to the Hiberno-English heritage of lore and lyricism and an interpretation of the Irish literary revival as the fruit of settler and native, Protestant and Catholic . . . Brimming with sympathy and skill.” —Irish Times
“Joe O’Connor occupies a special place in Irish life. The novel is artfully constructed . . . O’Connor’s evocation of such a difficult, morbid and yet morally beautiful man through the memory of an earthy and vivacious woman is remarkably ambitious and imaginative. Ghost Light is full of . . . sly pleasures and there is a great deal of broad comedy.” —The Irish Independent
“Lyrical and moving.” —The Sunday Tribune
About the Author
Joseph O'Connor was born in Dublin. His books include six previous novels:Cowboys and Indians(short-listed for the Whitbread Prize),Desperadoes,The Salesman,Inishowen,Star of the Sea, andRedemptionFalls.Star of the Seabecame an international bestseller, winning the Irish Post Award for Literature, and France's Prix Millepages, Italy's Premio Acerbi, and the Prix Madeleine Zepter for European Novel of the Year. His work has been published in thirty-five languages. http://josephoconnorauthor.com/
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Joseph O'Connor with a virtuosic, literary master stroke has melded fact with fiction in this captivating tribute to love ~ the story of Irish playwright J M Synge and his lover Molly Allgood, the Irish actress with the stage name of Maire O'Neill. This beautiful novel of Irish lore and lyricism has given me hours and hours of pure reading pleasure. Ghost Light: A Novel is so stunning that I found myself rereading paragraphs or entire pages over and over again just to revel in literary excellence.
When I come across a book like this in which I am particularly captivated, I mark certain pages that I want to reread again later with little slips of paper. When I finished this book, I had to laugh at myself because practically all of its pages have little slips of paper sticking out between them! This is one of those rare books where one can open up to any page and find the most extraordinary language, imagery, metaphor, or a passage or phrase that will transport one to another time, another place. For many of these remarkable qualities I am reminded of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and I know that this book is of those great traditions and deserves to be read again and again.
Yet it is not a book for everybody. Many will not appreciate the stream of consciousness narrative. Some will feel bogged down by the meanderings or recursions back and forth among the 50 years of time or setting which skips from Dublin to London to America. But if one approaches Ghost Light: A Novel with a willingness to surrender to the magic of its fractured narrative, a richly rewarding experience can be had.
The novel opens in a dodgy London boarding house in a seedy neighborhood of 1952, not long after dawn when the elderly, hung-over Molly is reviewing her past and facing yet another lonely day in her old age. In Molly's stream of consciousness voice: "You are sixty-five now," is said in the second person narrative which O'Connor brilliantly uses throughout the novel to bring the reader closer to Molly ~ you are her, she is you, or "you" can be Molly speaking to herself, or "you" is Synge being addressed to by Molly. Other times Molly's stream of thoughts shifts into a more usual third person narrative to evoke raptures of the past or to the first person to represent the drifting of Molly's consciousness, all bringing her entire life into the capsule of one day near the end of her life. It's O'Connor's genius to use this technique of flexible narrative voice ~ the effect produces both intimacy and distancing at the same time.
Living alone except for the ghostly presence of her lover Synge, the man with "martyr-sad eyes" who died so long ago, Molly tells a story with a mind that is rich in literary allusion. In fact, Molly has so much literature in her ~ Irish songs, poems, plays ~ that Synge's imagination was fed by Molly. Young Molly, as O'Connor envisions her, is a charming and playful heroine, a pretty, robust and intelligent fledgling actress who fell in love with the much older playwright whom she first met at the Abby Theatre in Dublin. Molly was totally committed to the well being of her gloomy, difficult and chronically ill lover, although in truth everything was against their relationship: the age gap, differences in class and religion, family hostilities, professional disapproval from the theatre, Synge's ill health. Yet they were drawn to each other and Molly loved him fiercely. She loved him for what he was, a man who would lose himself in himself, but whom she could draw out and inspire. She was his lover and his muse and theirs was a great love story.
Now, Molly ~ elderly, drunken, poverty stricken, alone and in the last days of her life, remembers Synge... not her two husbands, but her first love, her "Tramp", her Johnny Synge. Her mind drifts in and out of reverie, back to a now vanished Dublin and Wicklow where Molly and Synge carried out their affectionate but quarrelsome relationship. Back in the now as she shambles alone through the streets of bombed-scarred London, making her way to the BBC for what will be her final performance, she proceeds with the same trained deportment, the same courage and dignity that she has always gathered in the face of her trials and challenges. After all, the show must go on.
O'Connor closes the book with a beautiful heartfelt letter that Molly wrote to Synge but never sent. It was found among her papers after her death. The letter is an expression of Molly's heart, a sentiment which is charming and soulful and a most fitting way to end a story about a great love between a playwright and his muse.
I love this book dearly and rank it high among my favorite works of Irish literature.
The novel is about a grand love affair between Molly Allgood, an actress (stage name Maire O'Neill) and the playwright John Synge, most well-known for his play, Playboy of the Western World. The book starts out in 1952 on the streets of post-war London. Molly, 67 years old, is walking the cold blustery city and freezing. She lives in a hovel and drinks too much. She is hungry and cold, going from one sheltered spot to another and hallucinating from the the alcohol, her hunger and her freezing. She is on her way to a BBC radio reading and on her way she remembers, in broken dream sequences, her relationship with John Synge.
Molly and John Synge had an affair and at the time of their affair she was eighteen years old and he was thirty-six. John was very ill, most likely with lymphoma but perhaps tuberculosis or some other lung disease. He had one neck surgery after another. He lived only two years after they met. They came from opposite sides of the tracks. Molly was an actress who was from a mixed marriage - protestant and catholic - and she worked with her mother in a drapery shop. John came from old money and was of protestant background. He had a symbiotic relationship with his mother which made his relationship with Molly doomed from the start as his mother would not permit him to bring Molly home and threatened to cut off his trust fund should he marry her.
The book goes back and forth in time from 1952 London to 1905 Dublin where Molly and John were involved in a theater group. John was the resident playwright for William Yeats and the Grand Dame of the theater was Lady Augusta Gregory. Molly was an actress in the theater troupe. In those days it was very risqué for women to act.
Molly and John had to keep their affair a secret because John was terribly afraid of anyone finding out. He and Molly met on trains and traveled to Wicklow together for a vacation but acted like they did not know one another in Dublin. The affair was tender and poignant. John was very ill and the marriage was doomed from the start, never to be realized. They remained engaged until John's death. John called Molly his Pegeen, his Changeling girl.
We travel with Molly to the United States where she acted after John's death. She recollects the plays she was in and the popularity she had. She ended up marrying a philandering husband and had two children, a son who died during World War II and a daughter from whom she is semi-estranged because she can not get along with her son-in-law.
The novel contains imagined letters and real letters between the two lovers and hallucinatory memories from Molly's desperate mind as she tries to stay alive despite the difficult circumstances she finds herself in. My favorite parts of the novel are when it travels to 1905 and the reader gets to participate in the acting troupe with the great Synge and Yeats.
Parts of this novel are true and other parts are fictional according to Mr. O'Connor. Mr. O'Connor grew up in Dublin near the Synge house and was fascinated by the playwright's life. This novel is the outcome of his fascination. In some ways it reminded me of the poetic beauty of Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. Sense of place is very important. This is a novel with grand scope and great beauty, one that will not be forgotten by any lover of literature.
"Certain biographers will want to beat me with a turf shovel," O'Connor states in his aftermath. Indeed, in reading that aftermath, this is not the book for those who are seeking a historically-correct look into these principals. It is definitely fiction.
But what fiction it is! It sings, glows, and at times, reads like sheer poetry. There are hints of James Joyce in the stream-of-consciousness. It all flows from the title Ghost Light, which O'Connor defines later in the book, "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 play."
And within the confines of this novel, these "ghosts" definitely do. The "play" begins in 1952; Molly, now quite old and penurious, is in London where is to record a radio play for the BBC studios. There, in an alcoholic haze, she muses upon the highlights of her life: as an actress at Abbey Theatre of Dublin, her acquaintance with Yeats, and most of all, her love affair with the much-older John M. Synge.
She remembers that Synge was "a man who could see into things - very ordinary things...His imagination, or soul, or whatever province of his mind was hungry for the sustaining rain of the world, would soak in the storms of his own haunted strangeness, and the berries would bloom, and they were what they were, and if the tendrils were peculiar, and some of them wild, the fruits were so shockingly luscious and potent that the thirsty were willing to savour the bitter for the sake of the concomitant sweet."
Ah, poetry! By using the documented framework of Synge - his ascension to the top of his craft, his complicated relationship with his widowed mother (who strongly disapproved of his "liaison"), his engagement to Molly, his early death at age 37 - Mr. O'Connor expands his story, weaving fiction in with the fact. His portrayal of Molly - playful, wayward, with a spirited independence - is sublime. And then, Mr. O'Connor goes further, also weaving some highlights of the Abbey Theatre and the cruelty of class-consciousness into his tapestry. A most amazing book - and very recommended by this reader.
The book jacket shines with praise for O'Connor's writing. Much of it is indeed excellent, but a little self-conscious; its quality seems to lie outside the story rather than being truly integral. Here, for example, is Molly anticipating that broadcast: "And perhaps there is an otherworld only radio waves can attain, where the dead are listening quietly together. Her son, her two husbands, the man in the photograph on the mantelshelf, her brothers, her mother, Yeats, her sister. The brave, broken boys who died in the war. The murdered of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Memory is their oxygen, megahertz their rain. Their country has no currency or flag. The aurora borealis is their national anthem, for they are able to hear colours, touch sounds. Their flicker-lit eyes see no blitzes, no firestorms. Their language needs no words for torture." Sonorous and evocative prose, for sure, but it segues from the real thoughts in Molly's mind to ideas that belong solely to the author, taking us away from the central character rather than deeper into her life. This is not an isolated case; O'Connor's writing is often pitched in a higher register than would be appropriate, even in an Irish context. Synge's censorious mother speaks like a character out of melodrama; when Molly overhears a conversation between him and Lady Gregory, she at first thinks it is a scene from a new play -- as well it might be, but not one by Synge, whose own ear for speech was impeccable.
After about 100 pages, nonetheless, the book picks up. Paradoxically, O'Connor does more to convince me by showing the characters' reversals than their sweet-talk. The chapter leading to the premiere of Synge's masterpiece, THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD, begins with a furious quarrel at the Abbey Theatre, saved only by the intervention of Yeats. An escape to a cottage in Wicklow reveals stresses between the couple that somehow authenticate their idyll. There are two grotesque set-pieces when they introduce each other to their respective mothers, and a chilling one as Molly is fobbed off by Synge's family after the funeral to which she was not even invited. And my first prediction turns out to be wrong: Molly's radio broadcast is indeed a climax, but not at all of the nature I might have imagined. Yes, Joseph O'Connor has the skill to pull some light out of the darkness -- there are some beautiful moments in these last pages -- but if I had not undertaken to review the book for Vine, I would never have stayed around long enough for the illumination.