Harvill Secker, £16.99, 246pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Ghost Light, By Joseph O'Connor
This remarkable, radiant and captivating novel opens in a lodging-house in London in October 1952, not long after dawn, where an elderly woman in the throes of a hangover is reviewing her past, its accomplishments and shoddiness, its vulnerabilities and vicissitudes. The actress Maire O'Neill, born Molly Allgood above a junk shop in a Dublin back street, beloved of JM Synge and a definitive Pegeen Mike in the first production of The Playboy of the Western World, endured the riots - "the Playboy Riots" - following its opening at the Abbey Theatre in 1907, and the sneers and slurs of the backbiting city. 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 Synge. Molly Allgood, in this version, has a good deal of Molly Bloom in her make-up, and a lively intelligence to boot. Even on her last legs, drunken and impoverished, she makes an impact on local tradesmen and her remaining theatrical colleagues.
O'Connor has hit on the device of addressing his protagonist, at times, in the second person - "You approach your only window; it is shockingly cold to the touch. Winter is coming to England" - which achieves an effect of intimacy and distancing at once. At other times, he adopts a more usual third-person narrative to evoke excitements and raptures of the past, an illicit holiday in rural Wicklow, assignations arranged to evade the gossips of Dublin, lying post-coitally in the heather on Killiney Hill. Everything is against the central relationship (in reality and in Ghost Light): the age gap (16 years), differences of class and religion, the disapproval of Yeats and Lady Gregory, family hostility on both sides. Synge's ill-health and Molly's vitality - his pusillanimity and her independence of spirit. Nevertheless, they were irresistibly drawn to each other and would have married, had Hodgkin's disease not intervened.
Synge knew he was dying. One of his poems poses the question: "I asked if I got sick and died, would you/ With my black funeral go walking too?" In the event, Molly doesn't get the chance; it is kept a family affair. Synge is dead at 37 - and for her, there are long years of professional acclaim ahead; marriage, the slide into poverty. And underlying it all, the one glittering love-affair of her early life.
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). Molly Allgood, in this incarnation, 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.
Patricia Craig's memoir ' Asking for Trouble' is published by Blackstaff Press
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