Ghost Light
A Novel
Joseph O'Connor
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Molly Allgood O'Neill is a frazzled old actress who lives in Bayswater, London, begs coppers on the corner, in the pub --- and sleeps in the cinema, dozing with "A Streetcar Named Desire."

She was once in love with, engaged to, the Irish playwright John Synge. Then he died: Hodgkin's Disease, mother-whipped, thirty-seven years of age.

She's a blabby old thing, Molly is, filled with recollections of her time on the boards in England, Ireland, and America, and her fame: once they stopped the train outside Scranton, Pennsylvania, "Irish immigrant families. Weeping and cheering. Lifting children on their shoulders. An old miner kissing her hand."

And there was the dramatist, her first love: the two of them tramping the woods, hiding from the gossips of Dublin. Then, at last, when they became formally engaged, she met Synge's ancient mother in the huge old house, filled with servants and memories and bitter questions:

    "How very pretty you are, Miss Allgood. Do you always wear spectacles?"

    "No, ma'am, only for reading. I was reading on the train now."

    "I see. Do you intend to read now?"

It's a haunting story, and O'Connor has a writerly touch like his contemporaries ... J. P. Donleavy, Aidan Higgins, Adrian McKinty, and sweet Jamie O'Neill. Like them, he knows how to tell a rousing story, make an even better neo-Victorian dialogue. This is Synge alone with his mother:

    Teasy Ryan was able to tell me that you had been seen at Greystones. Swimming..."

    "She is a friend. It was sunny. We went bathing at the public strand. She is a colleague at the theatre. Afterwards we had ices. Now you have the entire penny-dreadful."

    "I knew it. your so-called theatre. Some little typist who sells tickets. I imagine she must be good and proud of herself to have ensnared you quite so readily. One need not speculate as to how."

    "She is not a typist, Mother. You may as well know she is an actress."

"Her frightened, beautiful face seems to lose all its color, and a quiver briefly distends her mouth. 'So it is true, then. The worst is true. Do you hate me so much? The woman who gave you life?'"

§     §     §

As we find her in 1952, Molly is part tart, part romantic, and all actress. Her memories crowd the pages: Synge and his peculiarities, their days and nights in the deserted cottage in Wicklow, his promises, aborted by his sickness and dying. He wants to take her to America, "You and I shall truly feel we are come home at last. There is nothing in this heartbroken Ireland for either of us, Molly."

    It is a mirrorland of celibates and killers on bicycles, a Lilliput of Reverend Mothers and pittances and fogs and embarrassing stains on the mattress.

O'Connor has presented her whole ... and raw: there are echoes of Molly Bloom, hints of Joyce throughout Ghost Light. The ashplant in Molly's apartment, her mother's favorite saying, "Bloom Where You Are Planted," the cat that speaks with a Joycean accent ("Mkgnao.")

But Molly is old now, and hungry; lonely, and fearing madness. "Lately you have caught yourself grumbling to the walls, to the turrets of broken-spined paperbacks that stand sentry about the floorboards, to the lamp with its ripped shade, its disheveled aplomb, the pegs on the coatless hatstand."

    The night-thoughts are the hardest. You cannot talk to the night. If you do, it might start talking back.

In her youth, Molly also comes alive for us ... in their cottage near Annamoe, the glorious Irish backcountry: "Every blade of snipegrass can be heard as it grows or is mown into sweet-smelling death. Larks and blue linnets arise from the furrows as she walks into the streamlet in the morning."

Synge seems a little more misty. "They speak to one another like characters in one of his plays," says O'Connor, and perhaps that is one of the problems. She wants to marry; he demurs. "What is marriage," he says, "but the final admission that one's parents were right? It is the dreariest way imaginable for society to regulate the natural impulse." They part; he follows her; she is adamant; he dies.

She, not Synge, is the center of our care and exasperation. She may lose him, but we are grieved as much by her burning herself to death in 1952, in her small flat, where, it is said, she set fire to her precious books merely to keep warm on a cold, hungry, loveless October day.

--- Lolita Lark
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