Novel Thoughts: Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

Fluidity isn’t always necessary when it comes to fiction; in fact, sometimes it actually detracts from the story. However, in Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light the lack of fluidity makes the story inaccessible and its main character less than empathetic. At first.

Molly, as she calls herself, is ambiguous at best when the novel opens. We don’t learn anything about her or how she came to be in her current position until much later in the novel, and the absence of information creates a barrier between the reader and the one with whom they should be identifying. We are too infrequently informed of the time period with which we are dealing, so we don’t know how to relate to our protagonist or her circumstances.

Narrative voice in the story doesn’t quite help Molly’s case. O’Connor writes in second person for much of the novel, and instead of creating a bond between reader and protagonist, the technique only serves to make the reader feel disoriented and disconnected. Readers may find themselves wondering why they’ve been personally drawn into a story in which they have no firm footing.

Generally speaking, new characters are drawn into a story for some sort of effect. They somehow help to further the story, if only to make a suggestion about the future choices of the protagonist. In Ghost Light, these characters are haphazardly (or halfheartedly) written into the story; their presence isn’t explained, and they offer no resolution for any of the problems taking place therein. Take, for example, Molly’s daughter and son-in-law. She (or you, as O’Connor writes it) has obvious issues with her son-in-law, and there is reference made to an argument which, the reader can surmise, dealt with alcohol. Molly obviously has an affection for her family, but we are never told precisely why she is so distanced from them emotionally. Traveling is not within her means and is easily explained away, but the lack of communication stands apparent and important for both Molly and the reader.

No text is without some sort of redemption (I am ever the optimist), and Ghost Light is no different. Couched here and there within the wandering text is a poignant line, often when the reader is most in need of one. And eventually one does come to sympathize with Molly. Her everyday obstacles become more and more apparent and her struggles to overcome them more personal. We find ourselves cursing the obstacles along with her and chastising the people who place them there in the first place. By the end of the novel, Molly’s fate has become apparent to the reader, and it is with some difficulty that we relinquish our hold on her. Somehow, Molly has managed to endear herself to us in a way that provokes consideration.

In theory, Ghost Light tells a great story of a woman who overcame the odds and rose above the social position into which she was born. However, in practice, the techniques used to tell the story prohibit the reader from fully engaging with it.


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