Joseph O’Connor’s “Ghost Light” is a work fraught with strange and marvelous turns of phrase, with words that linger on the tongue days after reading. “The strange bloom of the red bracken in the early morning,” he writes, “is like the sheen … from a pregnant woman’s skin.”
The novel is presented in an eclectic mix of styles—namely in letters, in narrative, in fragments of recollections, and in poetry. As it progresses, “Ghost Light” becomes a slow unearthing of the layers of a dying woman’s memories. This woman is Molly Allgood, down on her luck, but retaining the fierce pride of her youth. Her story begins when she is older and desperately poor, but we learn from her letters and reminiscences that she was a beautiful actress and the fiancée of the Irish playwright, John Millington Synge, best known for “The Playboy of the Western World,” in which she played the lead. As she wanders through the streets of London over 40 years later, the memories she recounts form a fragmented and incomplete love story, centered not so much on their love, as on what doomed it.
O’Connor’s language is fantastically rich, to the point that it casts serious doubts on whether Allgood is the actual narrator of the novel. It seems implausible that a woman who has read nearly nothing before she meets Synge at age 20 could possibly produce such vivid images of Ireland and comprehensive descriptions of her fiancé’s writing process. The narrator describes Synge’s peculiar mental state with pith and desperation: “It is like watching the muzzle-flash of a gun through fog yet wanting the bullets to hit you.” Whether it is actually meant to be Allgood or the voice of O’Connor stepping in, the result is a varied and visceral portrait of the two lives and how they intertwine. O’Connor could not have made their lives tangible without this liberty. The contrast between the cerebral descriptions and the earthy dialogue adds momentum to the narrative. And though there are times when the Irish affectations in the characters’ speech feel stilted, archaisms such as the frequent use of “auld” add color and depth to the work.
Although Allgood refuses to admit that she is in decline, O’Connor intimates this fact through her foggy perception of the world around her—a subtle technique that spares both Allgood and the reader the potential emotional devastation of the character’s downfall. His portrayal of her unstable stream of consciousness feels strikingly natural. Yet, some moments when she talks to herself seem artificial. “There must always be a plan, girl,” she thinks, but a 60-year-old woman referring to herself as “girl” and speaking to herself as one would to a child does not ring true.
Nonetheless, O’Connor develops the tragedy in the relationship—Synge’s incurable cancer and Allgood’s desperation, the misunderstandings that slowly bloom between them—in strokes that are nothing short of masterful. Synge’s and Allgood’s relationship is complicated not only by their incompatible personalities, but also by a gulf in circumstance. Synge is a man of the aristocracy, writing plays about impoverished villagers in western Ireland. Allgood is from a large, poor family in Dublin, and is illiterate until the time of their meeting. Synge, though sincerely interested in Irish villagers, sees them as curiosities; he learns Gaelic, hoping to speak to them in their native tongue, and is shocked to find that they speak English. To Molly Allgood, they are people much like those with whom she grew up in the slums of Dublin. The resulting deterioration of their love is written with insight and sensitivity—culminating in a powerful contrast of two funerals that marks the different worlds in which Synge and Allgood moved and lived.
But despite O’Connor’s searing language, “Ghost Light” cannot completely satisfy; the beauty of O’Connor’s portrayal of Irish society establishes expectations that he does not fulfill in the understated love story. “Ghost Light” is a tragedy, but it lacks emotional impact, because the reader is unable to fathom how much is being lost. Synge and Allgood have a beautiful love affair, one full of missteps and unrealized longings. We can begin to understand the depth of their love through the way that Allgood seems to remain changed by him in 1952—in her language, as well as in the way she observes and interacts with the world around her. However, in a book with such profoundly moving prose, a tale of hope and exchanged letters is not enough. With Joseph O’Connor’s language, the love story could have been written with intensity and clarity. Although it seems that Allgood and Synge are desperately in love, there is no passion to lend momentum to the meandering descriptions that are woven into the novel. The book concludes with a vague sadness, leaving only the feelings of pity for Allgood’s dreadful circumstances and wonder at the catastrophic toll that such an understated love has taken on her life. O’Connor’s lyricism establishes the expectation for a level of hope that the story never provides. While the result is beautiful, it disappoints by promising a romance and delivering an elegy.