Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

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!

9 thoughts on “Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

  1. reviewsbylola says:

    This sounds like a really intriguing read. I have never heard of either of these people, but I suppose my Irish cultural history is nowhere near up to par! I will definitely put this on my list of books to look out for.

  2. Jessica says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    I had to read this very slowly and stick to a couple a chapters a day because of the style of writing which I gradually got used to. I think the atmosphere throughout is its strongest element.

    • Helen says:

      It took me a long time to read it too. It did take a while to get used to the writing style and I really had to concentrate, but it was worth the effort!

  3. midasinreverse says:

    I loved this book. I thought that the second-person narration worked really well; as we read it’s as if we’re directing Molly, like in a play. At times it almost feels as if the reader is Synge, in a strange way, talking to Molly. I like the fact that O’Connor experiments with form and structure, most modern writers don’t rock the boat and work within the confines of expected formats.
    The book had a haunting effect, you feel a sense of sorrow for what could have been. I love Joseph O’Connor’s writing style and found Ghost Light after reading ‘Star of the Sea’ which is another of his masterpieces. Thanks for sharing, it’s good to read other peoples’ opinions!

    • Helen says:

      I agree that the second person narration was very effective and I did like it once I got used to it. I haven’t read any of Joseph O’Connor’s other books but I’ll look out for Star of the Sea!

  4. Jean Head says:

    Reading this book for our monthly book group. Anxious to hear what the others think of it. I enjoyed it very much, although it is not an easy book to read and requires a lot of concentration. I have read Star of the Sea which I purchased while touring Ireland in 2006 on the recommendation of our tour guide. I love Joseph O’Connor’s style of writing and find myself re-reading some passages which are almost poetic. I had not heard of John Synge or Molly Allgood but I am now trying to get as much information as I can .

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for commenting, Jean. I hope the other members of your group enjoyed this book as much as you did. It’s certainly not an easy read, but the writing is beautiful.

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