Two recent novels illustrate the wild and deep beauty of Irish fiction-writing today. Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor is a breathtaking and mesmerizing novel, one of the best books I've read all year. Chosen by the city of Dublin as a citywide shared read ("One City, One Book"), Ghost Light is not well known here in the U.S. but it should be. It should be read by students of theater (portraying as it does the world of Irish theater during the days of John Millington Synge) and by students of life (i.e., every one of us). Ghost Light accurately, painfully, and beautifully creates the rhythm and measure of a life, the weight and breadth of what we carry with us as we grow old and what we let go, lest it drag us down before our time.
Based on the real-life relationship between playwright Synge and actress Maire O'Neill (also known as Molly Allgood), the book is told mostly from the aging Molly's viewpoint but also offers the poetically probing surveillance of an unnamed observer:
"This morning someone else is come to you again, out of the same light, somehow, out of an unseen room, out of a city you have lived in the last thirteen years but have never found a reason to call your own. This has happened to all of us: a coasting across the mind by one we had forgotten or purposefully banished. But today will prove him a wanderer reluctant to be exiled, an emigrant still attempting to come home."
The day is young and it is still dark outside when we first meet Molly: in "the dilapidated townhouse across the Terrace, a light has been on all night." Later we will learn that it is theater tradition to leave a light on all night in a playhouse, to allow ghosts to perform their plays: this is the "ghost light." And for us readers, ghosts will be performing as we accompany Molly through the day, following along as she makes her way slowly towards a last acting job, a radio play for the BBC.
It is a momentous day, because today Molly will allow her old lover back into her thoughts and allow us, the readers, to become intimate with both of them, as we also become acquainted with their friends, including W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, co-founders of Abbey Theater in Dublin. Molly's memories weave to and fro, from her first meeting with Synge to her final confrontation with his cold and disapproving family, from her childhood living above a junk shop to her days as a budding -- and then an aging -- actress, both in Britain and in the U.S.
After Synge's death, Molly was still a young woman and she lived her life with vigor and a great appetite, but Synge was the love of her life, and it is their story -- and her love -- that binds so beautifully together Molly's disparate memories:
"To find you in my mind at some moment of the morning, to see some sentence in a script and wonder what my Tramper would say to it, or to feel you glowing on like a lamp in my head and know that I'd sleep inn your arms that night. There's nothing in the world would ever give me the joy of that. Nothing in the great round world."
For the love story alone this would be a marvelous book, and for the characters alone, complex and layered and passionate, this book would be a wonderful read. But the writing raises this book to art and poetry, and inspires wild devotion to both Molly and to the man who has channeled her, Joseph O'Connor.
The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill is a more gothic, creepy, and weirdly topical novel about murder by mother, inspired by the true story of the death of the daughter of an aristocratic Irish family in 1892. McGill does a fine job presenting the Ireland of the time, its tensions between new ways and old superstitions, and between Irish Home Rule and British governance, while also giving shape and life to one woman caught, like a butterfly, in a place and a situation she cannot understand. McGill's characters are much more starkly realized than O'Connor's, less layered and therefore with less to be revealed, other than the deeply and horribly held family secrets that each character (upstairs and downstairs) carries with them.
Where McGill succeeds so well is in her language, beautiful and languorous and wild:
"The story runs away from me, like the woolen sleave caught on a barbed wire fence. It unravels before my eyes. I am trying with my words to gather it up but it's a useless shape at times and doesn't resemble at all the thing that it was. It's hard to do, to tell one story, when there are so many stories to tell."
Lucky for us, McGill does weave all the stories together, beautifully, and in the end, we are caught and held tight:
"The knowledge of it pulls at me the way the sea tugged at me that day at the hem of my skirt, twisting it around my wet legs, hobbling me. It won't let me go on and it won't let me go back. It won't let me go."
The wild Irish writing of O'Connor and McGill will never let their readers go: we are held rapt in its beauty and its truth.
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