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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

Outstanding Literary Fiction

Ghost Light - Joseph O'Connor

A series of fragmentary recollections narrated by the impoverished actress, Maire O'Neil, at the end of her life, Ghost Light details her former love-affair with the famous Irish playwright John Millington Synge.

It was a relationship beset from the outset by cultural barriers – she was a working class Roman Catholic, the daughter of a second-hand furniture shop owner; he was a scion of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy – and it was further undermined by Synge's emotional reserve and by the furious controversy surrounding the production of his plays, perceived by the Irish public as utterly scandalous.

The characterisation in this novel is wonderfully vivid, particularly that of the embittered, alcoholic protagonist whose colourful language is a kind of tribute to Synge’s own. Here she is describing her Dresser on an American tour.

"Moody is her dresser for this tour; a curious profession. She tramps round America with actresses and dancers, works cheap, is often hired, says little. She’s after being alone to Meeting for it’s Ash Wednesday morning, and although Moody was born in in Connemara in the same year as Moses, was a Catholic in her girlhood and she kissing the beads, she now holds to a vigorous breed of shout-aloud Methodism long popular in the American south. There’s nobody knows her age. Four hundred and seven. Lived in Louisiana one time, the voodoo queen Moody, and more lines on her face than the map of Auld Ireland; she's like a fingerprint with eyes and a gob."

And here she is pondering the fate of another playwright, the splenetic Sean O'Casey, summoning up his portrait with even more earthiness.

“They say he lives some place on the south coast of England (Jaysus), is grown shrivelled with his hatreds, has been blind many years. He wears a skullcap and sea-boots and a filthy Aran sweater he stitched from dead critics’ hair. A face on him like an elephant’s bollock…Poor Johnnybags Casey and his harem of perceived slights.”

Elsewhere, O'Connor allows himself a more elevated style as he considers the nature of memory and the way we try to make sense of our own behaviour with the passage of time.

“There are eras of every life that have a carapace about them, a scar grown out of the woundedness. We gaze back on them as though they had meaning, contained intimations of future things – the seeds of the very subsequence we are now in a position to see. It is tempting to persuade ourselves we suffered a kind of illiteracy – we could not read the runes because we were young, or green, or undiscerning, or blind to the consequence. But that is not the truth, or not the whole truth, unmediated, for we sensed, even then, that this framed time must end and that all would be changed from this out. But we were adrift in a maelstrom of human feeling; already it was too late to swim. And we must somehow have wanted it, preferring the storm to the harbour: the hurts, the shattered feelings – the hurts to others, too. We are innocent of nothing we chose.”

Writing like this lingers and resonates long after it has been read. If I could give this novel more than five stars I would. It's a really outstanding piece of literary fiction and I feel that I am a larger human being for having read it.