'Ghost light. An ancient superstition among the people of the stage. One lamp must always be left burning when the theatre is dark, so the ghosts can perform their own plays.'
I didn't know that, can the thespians out there confirm?
Fact, fable or superstition it matters not because it is the most perfect analogy for this book.
With a trip to the fair city in the offing it seemed right and proper to head to Ireland with some reading too and having conquered Ulysses (sorry, did I mention that before?) I feel I have an affinity with all things Dublin, a strange if embryonic understanding of a city I knew virtually nothing about.
There is a chance I may meet Joseph O'Connor so how embarrassing would that be as I mumble that I haven't actually read any of his books, and actually having now read Ghost Light, how stupid would that have been too.
Dublin 1907, a city of whispered rumours, 'the shimmers of whispers' and young actress Molly Allgood falls in love with the playwright John Synge, terminally ill with Hodgkin's disease from which he died in 1909.
The blurb has nabbed all the best lines before me but he is "a troubled genius, a poet of fiery language and tempestuous passions" and a man I knew little about, she a girl of "the inner-city tenements, dreaming of stardom in America."
There are of course essential caveats to reading a fictional representation of real lives, I don't often enjoy them this much, so I was grateful that Joseph O'Connor owned up to those in his afterword... events not as depicted... most events didn't happen, and in his own words,
'Certain biographers will want to beat me with a turf shovel.'
I've struggled in the past with books like this that don't offer those provisos, so this reader won't be beating Joseph with a turf shovel should she find herself in proximity.
John Synge emotionally crippled by a domineering mother
'roasted on the flames of her widowhood...'
nursing a wistfulness and fear of happiness that Joseph O'Connor unravels as John's doomed love affair with Molly is played out in the elderly Molly's mind, many years later and under the influence of a considerable degree of ill-health and the demon drink.
Molly has been booked to do a radio play at the BBC and it as an old woman that she traverses Bloomsbury, making her way towards Portland Place and meditating, often in the second person narrative, about her life and loves. There are glimpses of excruciating poignancy delicately balanced to offer moments of really breathtaking sadness, deeply perceptive but never over-wrought, as events meander at will in Molly's mind from Russell Square, to Dublin to America, the BBC and back again.
'You are the daughter of a junkshop, a child of rag and bone, raised amid the tat no one wanted anymore, the bric-a-brac and clutter, the ugly and the expendable, but give the junk a little rub and you'll see your reflection. A bit of spit and polish works wonders.'
Latter day London is cold and bleak which all creates the perfect setting for the sense of melancholy that permeates Ghost Light as Molly considers her lively and gregarious past life on the stage from this solitude of the present. Stubborn and willful to the last
'She is the kind of woman who persists in the face of hard evidence. It has caused her much grief, this trait.'
Molly's slow subsidence (I can think of no other word to describe it) towards her death is among the most moving I have read.
I've sat alongside many dying people and consider it a privilege, two in particular who I loved dearly, and always I am struck by the increasing transparency of that luminously fine veil between life and death as the moment approaches. To capture that ethereal sensation in the written word, the feeling that I always find it so hard to describe I don't even try, is a feat that Joseph O'Connor accomplishes deftly and with pinpoint accuracy here. One that had me stretching out the last remaining pages of the book over several days because I didn't want to lose that sense of closeness to Molly, alone in the book perhaps but with every reader sitting alongside her stroking her hand.
It's a book that, true to its title and the meaning of ghost light, has haunted me in the nicest possible way since I finished it, a vision of Molly shuffling across Russell Square suddenly flits into my mind, I see her walking into the bookshop expecting to see an old friend who will help her out of a financial fix...
John Synge's last remaining letter to her in her hand
Or sitting with the executor of Synge's will as she hears what is left her...
Joseph O'Connor's self-acknowledged allusions to the Joycean style of Ulysses would have passed me by a year ago, not this time, I spotted them and revelled in them. That book has opened some amazing literary doors until now firmly closed.
So, for me Ghost Light has been a beautiful read and one that leaves me wondering quite why it failed to make this year's Booker long list, oh well ours is not to reason why etc, let's leave the last word to the priest Molly heard as a child,
'...grace was a gathering of candles waiting to be lit by the sinner... God, providence, the balm in Gilead - they need to be met halfway.'