In his elegiac seventh novel, Joseph O’Connor vividly resurrects the love affair between famed Irish playwright John Synge and actress Molly Allgood, the heroine of Synge’s controversial The Playboy of the Western World. Separated by 16 years, the lovers are further impeded by religious and class differences. And yet through all that, their passion for each other endures in Molly’s memory, more than four decades after Synge’s death at age 37 in 1907.
Befitting a story told through the eyes of an aging, impoverished woman whose health has been broken by alcohol and who is so close to financial ruin she is reduced to pawning her only remaining letter from her former lover, the novel is episodic and fragmentary. As she makes her way across London on a late fall morning in 1952, heading for the BBC to read in a radio play, Molly conjures up scenes of her relationship with Synge. There is an idyllic account of the lovers’ visit to the Irish countryside and another hilarious scene as Synge (alongside his friend William Butler Yeats) duels with Molly over her reading of one of his lines. Throughout, the fondness of her reminiscences is tempered by the chill of her dire circumstances and a recognition that their often-stormy attachment could not endure.
O’Connor’s prose in his portrait of Molly’s diminishing life is lyrical. Like the theatrical superstition that gives the novel its title, Synge’s spectral presence haunts the story, until even Molly herself feels “like a ghost drifting through some old house of a life.”
Though he confesses in an author’s note he’s taken substantial liberties with the real-life love affair of Synge and Allgood, in doing so O’Connor has created a credible, moving story that derives much of its appeal from the way it transcends the particulars of their biographies to tell a universal tale of love and loss.