Ghost Light tells the story of Molly Allgood, a real-life Irish actress who performed under the stage name Maire O’Neill and was engaged to the playwright John Millington Synge at the time of his death from cancer in 1909. Molly was fourteen years younger than Synge, she was a Catholic whereas he was a Protestant, and she came from a much poorer background. It seemed that almost everyone disapproved of their relationship including their parents, families and friends.
We first meet Molly in 1952, many years after Synge’s death. She’s living in poverty in London, dependent on alcohol, alone and desperate. We follow her over the course of a day as she prepares to take part in a play which is being broadcast on BBC radio and this story is interspersed with Molly’s memories of Synge and flashbacks to the early twentieth century.
As you’ve probably guessed, Ghost Light is not a happy book at all. Molly’s story is very sad, moving and poignant. The novel is written mostly in the second person, as well as following a stream of consciousness style, which made the book a bit harder to read than it needed to be, but Joseph O’Connor’s writing is undeniably beautiful and I did get used to the second person perspective after a while. There was also a chapter written in the style of a scene from one of Synge’s plays which I thought was a nice addition.
O’Connor states in his author’s note that although Molly and Synge were real people, this is a fictional story and most of the events described in the novel never actually happened. However, even if O’Connor’s Molly and Synge don’t bear much resemblance to their real-life models, they both felt completely realistic to me. Although I didn’t find Molly very likeable, I did love her narrative voice, which was bitter one minute and amusing the next, and this helped me warm to her character.
I won this book in last October’s Readathon and would like to thank Jessica of Park Benches and Bookends for providing a copy. I wish I’d had a chance to read it sooner, but my timing was actually perfect because I was in Dublin for a few days just last week and discovered some displays on Synge and Molly Allgood in the Dublin Writers Museum which I probably wouldn’t have appreciated if I hadn’t read Ghost Light!