Growing up inthe coastal town of Dún Laoghaire, JosephO’Connor lived but a short walk from the Victorian house that had oncesheltered the playwright John Millington Synge (1871-1909), and his immediatefamily. In the acknowledgements that close GhostLight—O’Connor’saccomplished seventh novel—the author notes that he’d fancied the Syngedomicile “as a slightly decrepit embassy of literature, a headquarterswhere brave things had been attempted, some magnificently achieved, but also ahermitage of ghosts.” O’Connor projects himself into that gothic spaceand, furthermore, into the theatrical society that blossomed around Ireland’sAbbey Theatre, by fixing upon Synge’s relationship with the spirited actressMaire O’Neill (1885-1952).
At the time of his death from Hodgkin’s disease, Synge wasengaged to O’Neill (née Molly Allgood) who had been the lead actress in theoriginal production of his mordantly droll comedy, The Playboy of the Western World (1907). Theircourtship met with resistance from Synge’s family and social circle, whichincluded fellow Abbey Theater co-directors William Butler Yeats and IsabellaAugusta, Lady Gregory. Of issue to the naysayers was not only the agedifference between them—Synge was thirty-five and O’Neill nineteen when theyfirst became fond of each other—but differences in station. Yeats and LadyGregory, like the rest of those who frowned upon Synge’s amorous leanings, weresensitive to the class markers that distinguished him from his beloved: O’Neillwas the product of a working-class background, who had received a spottyeducation at an orphanage where she was placed for a time, after her father’sdeath. Synge—the offspring of a barrister and a landowner—was a graduate ofTrinity College Dublin who could read in six languages and was well traveled.
In his novel, GhostLight, O’Connor pulls from such contrasts reasons for mirth and gravity.Frequently, such emotions spur one another on as they do when O’Neill reads alyric that has been added to an oft-consulted map, which bears the stamp Ex Libris Trinity College Dublin:
Ifthis chart – thou steal’st away,
Whatshall thou say
– OnJudgment Day?
Yet ifthis map be – wrongly drawn
Trav’ller– mercy — from thy scorn.
She reads the final coupletaloud. [Synge] chuckles at her pronunciation. In his accent, it rhymes. Inhers, it does not. For less have millions starved.
It is O’Neill’s voice, by turns vulgar and classed-up,that centers the novel and invests it with a stubborn optimism.
“Life abounds with blessings.” This motto comesto her at the beginning of the story, where we find O’ Neill, aged sixty-five,hung-over and indebted, living in a dilapidated London flat. She bundlesherself in that sentiment, as she does in the best of her few remaininggarments, to see her through a chilly day in October, 1952. In part, she ismade giddy by an afternoon appointment at the BBC, where she is to participatein a radio adaptation of a play by Sean O’Casey. As she goes about herpreparatory rituals, she mulls over an interview request from a scholar who iseager to discuss her relationship with Synge, and to obtain for her institution’sarchives any personal documents relating to the literary artist. Having longago sold off all but one of his letters, O’Neill, for dire want of groceries,decides to part with this last memento, though it’s her intention to sell it toa London book dealer who has been kind to her in the past. Placing the letterin the pocket of her only coat, she goes outside to meet the day which willgive her the occasion to visit a pub, a museum, Trafalgar Square, and a movietheatre, before heading off to work in a fog of alcohol and remembrance.
O’Connor is superb at holding the reader’s attentionacross scenes drawn from O’Neill’s youth as a rising actress at the AbbeyTheatre, to her ominous middle years, to the waning moments of her life. Thereis a noticeable physicality to his writing. Peering at her aged knuckles, O’Neillsees “the fossil of a bird’s wing.” A clock, “placks solidly,adjusting its ratchets.” An over-stuffed ashtray, “calls to mind aporcupine.” The author’s delineation of psychological states is equallysharp. Synge’s ambivalence towards marriage belies a quality “many womenhave known: the suitor who craves you but secretly wants to be dismissed.”As O’Neill shuffles about in the morning, getting ready for what is fated to beher final performance, she is keen to shrug off the memories that have stirredwithin her because “otherwise we pull into ourselves like snails . . . andyou can lose thirty years in such a withdrawal. This is how time unfolds whenyou are old and susceptible. Wander into its spiral shell and it is hard toescape. The glisten that looks inviting to age-bleared eyes has a way ofsuddenly liquefying and then coagulating around your heart, and the womb inwhich you find yourself so numbingly cocooned is too enveloping to allow you toresurface.”
GhostLight imparts much of its joy by tracking O’Neill as shegallivants about London brushing off the slights and acknowledging theserendipities strewn along her path. It’s regrettable that the novel faltersfor a brief spell, near the end, when she arrives at the radio studio and isintroduced to a young fan eager for her autograph. What transpires is a schmaltzyincident that interrupts the otherwise unobtrusive current of pathos whichcarries the story along. Be that as it may, this Hallmark moment needn’t deterreaders in the mood for a literary work that is as inviting as a liquidindulgence.