Joseph O’Connor has written three screenplays and four plays for the theatre, so it is not a surprise that his seventh novel, Ghost Light finds it roots and heart in the early years of Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre. Specifically, it is a fictional love story loosely based on the actual relationship between Edmund John Millington Synge, one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre, and Molly Allgood (stage name Marie O’Neill), a very young, innately bright, and energetic actress. Synge (author of Playboy of the Western World) is seventeen years Molly’s senior and light years away in class and education. Bad enough that she is an actress (with all that it conveys), but she also comes from Dublin’s tenements. For the duration of their engagement she is never accepted as an equal by Synge’s mother or any his friends (W. B. Yeats, et. al.). Another and most heartbreaking distance between the two lovers is his poor health. He dies at age 37 from Hodgkin’s disease. Molly’s love for Synge, the theatre and life itself, lasts far beyond their brief time together.
O’Connor’s writing is as haunting and beguiling as the light “[i]n the top floor room of the dilapidated townhouse across the Terrace” from Molly Allgood’s room. We meet Molly in her sixty-fifth year, on October 27, 1952, the day she is to take part in a BBC radio threatre broadcast. The date is important because the core of this novel takes place throughout that one day, from 6:43 a.m., when she rises and notes that the mysterious light across the way is out, until she returns to her flat after the late afternoon BBC meeting. O’Conner tells Molly’s story through vivid flashbacks in both second person narrator (speaking directly to Molly) and Molly’s own stream of consciousness.
The pairing of such narrative voices creates an intimate picture of Molly, both as a youthful and spirited actress when she first meets Synge and as the reader meets her in 1952, fiercely defying the poverty and drunkenness in which she lives. The author exposes the heights and depths of their love. Synge wrote Pegeen, “Playboy’s” heroine, expressly for Molly, and she holds onto all the memories: the tenderness, the isolation, his early death. But it is not a sad story, for “Life abounds with blessings.” And when she thinks of the past and all those gone from her life (two husbands and a son), she thinks again about blessings: “It is only a matter of noticing them.” She reminds herself to be grateful for the BBC job.
Molly’s heart and character is revealed with surprising depth at the BBC. But when back in her room, hungry and sick, “You stoke the fire and kneel before it . . .What a long, strange day . . . But a day full of blessings . . .” O’Connor’s exquisite rendering of her life and her enduring love for John Synge will leave Molly’s own ghost light burning brightly in the reader’s mind.