three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
user_rating: 
0

A-Ghost LightJoseph O'Connor is an Irish author whose previous novels include Cowboys and Indians, shortlisted for the Whitbread prize, and Star of the Sea. Before his career as a novelist, he was a journalist for the Sunday Tribune and Esquire. Ghost Light is loosely based on the lives of Irish actress Maire O'Neill (Molly Allgood) and her lover, playwright John Millington Synge.

The Story: Molly Allwood, a young Irish actress living in Dublin, is engaged to John M. Synge, the playwright of The Playboy of the Western World, when he dies prematurely from Hodgkin's disease. Synge's privileged and Protestant family had never approved of the relationship, divided as they were by both religion and class. Many decades later, Molly has suffered through two world wars, two divorces, and is now, in the early 1950s, a drunkard living from hand to mouth in a shabby London boardinghouse. Molly's memory travels far back in time as she remembers the poetry and the brilliance of her love long lost. Her narrative is the last flicker of ghost light, the lamp that is always "left burning when the theatre is dark, so the ghosts can perform their own plays."
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 256 pages. $24. ISBN: 978037161873

Independent 4 of 5 Stars
"Ghost Light incorporates easily its freight of Abbey Theatre history, Dublin class-consciousness and literary goings-on, the known facts and crucial divergences from them (crucial to the novel). ... O'Connor's novel carries all the pungency and resonance of a particular era of the past." Patricia Craig

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"O'Connor's marvelous handling of point of view is the technical accomplishment pushing the narrative forward, but it's the consciousness he evokes, the yearning and disappointments gripping O'Neill, her poignant and forlorn struggle to affirm her dignity and retain her memories, that give the novel its power." John Strawn

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
" [It] not only provides us with a who's who of Irish writing ... but also represents a fond farewell to Ireland's ‘hidden corners' since O'Connor plans ... to set his next novel outside the motherland." James McElroy

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"O'Connor keeps the narrative compact, as though he's writing a play rather than a novel. ... In Ghost Light, O'Connor allows himself to ride the wave of Irish eloquence, adopting in the Wicklow section (where ‘a tumbled thatchless cottage ... has bog cotton growing in its rafters') a jagged lyricism redolent of Seamus Heaney." Christopher Benfey

Telegraph 3.5 of 5 Stars
"O'Connor's descriptions of the vanished Dublin and Wicklow of Synge and Molly's quarrelsome, affectionate courtship are enchanting. ... [T]here is a sombre freight of Irish history dragging along in its wake." Catherine Taylor

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ghost Light is not merely a fictional rendering of factual events, although it contains razor-sharp portraits of William Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory and a nuanced assessment of the riotous Dublin premiere of Playboy. This is Molly's story as imagined by a sensitive, empathetic artist." Wendy Smith

Guardian 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The author is trying to sum up a year-long, lifelong love into one transcendent experience, a passion that stands outside time, in ghost light--but the flow of time is the stuff of story, and to my sorrow I felt the story bogging down in its meanders and recursions until it no longer drew me on." Ursula K. Le Guin

Critical Summary

Ghost Light imagines the doomed romance of Molly Allwood and playwright Jon Synge, an affair fraught with roadblocks due to their class and religious differences. Most critics were enchanted by Molly's reflections on her tumultuous yet affectionate love affair, as well as touched by her desolation many years later. Others found, however, that the poetic otherworldliness spun by the frequent usage of second person narrative detracted from the intensity and flow of the novel. Readers of historical fiction, however, will enjoy this tale of love lost.