ANDREW FFRENCH considers the beauty of the Oxford Mail/Waterstones April Book of The Month.

* THE BOOK: AAFTER writing the stunning Star of the Sea, Joseph O’Connor could have retired.

But the talented author was born to write and has since penned Redemption Falls, a sequel to his bestseller, and his now novel Ghost Light.

I was so struck by Star of the Sea, which focuses on a 26-day sailing voyage to America, following the potato famine in Ireland in the mid-1840s, that I was keen to get my hands on everything the author has written. The novel even made me contemplate my own Irish connections, and the Ffrench family links with the village of Frenchpark in County Roscommon.

It’s hard to imagine the people of the village didn’t suffer hardship in the Great Famine of Ireland between 1845 and 1849.

With Pius Mulvey, Lord Merredith and Mary Duane, the unforgettable characters from Star of the Sea fresh in my mind, I was really looking forward to Ghost Light.

And I was not disappointed, although the love story is less ambitious in its scope than Star of the Sea or Redemption Falls.

Ghost Light switches between London in the 1950s, Ireland in the Edwardian era, and theatrical New York in about 1910.

It’s heroine Molly Allgood is loosely based on a real person, Maire O’Neill, who was the lover and muse of the Irish playwright John Synge for a number of years.

The story starts by following Molly as she walks through London in 1952 on her way to an acting job at the BBC.

And the tale is told mostly from Molly’s point of view, as she remembers the times she spent with the love of her life and regrets what might have been.

The action frequently flits from present to past as Molly walks across post-war London remembering better days, when Synge was courting her against the wishes of their families, and when her career as an actress was at its peak.

Ghost Light is not a page turner like Star of the Sea, focusing more on thoughts and emotions than dramatic action.

And it is not a book that can be devoured quickly because O’Connor takes such care writing each line, packing phrases with colourful descriptions and similes.

From early on in the novel it becomes apparent that the couple are not destined to live happily ever after, so what keeps the reader guessing is how the relationship will end, and how Molly, now living with her cat in a shabby London flat, will survive.

O’Connor knows better than most authors that readers love a sad story and is well-equipped as a writer to exploit that weakness.

Whether or not O’Connor’s story mirrored the facts of the real-life ‘Molly’ and John Synge didn’t bother me too much.

Ghost Light is a touching account of a doomed love affair and the author has created yet another memorable, true-to-life character in Molly Allgood.

As the author explains in his acknowledgements and caveats at the end of the novel: “Ghost Light is a work of fiction, frequently taking immense liberties with fact.

“The experiences and personalities of the real Molly and Synge differed from those of my characters in unaccountable ways.”

He adds: “Molly’s circumstances, although difficult in her later years, were not as depicted here.”

Even though the author has embarked on a work of ‘faction’, I was quite happy to suspend my disbelief because the story is so skilfully written.

* THE AUTHOR: JOSEPH O’Connor was born in Dublin on September 20, 1963.

His parents took an interest in fiction, poetry, theatre and music and as a child and teenager Joseph was surrounded by books.

When he encountered JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and John McGahern’s collection of short stories Getting Through at the age of 17, he decided he wanted to be a novelist himself.

Joseph attended University College, Dublin, from 1981 to 1986, where he studied literature and history and wrote for student publications, also working part-time as a journalist for The Sunday Tribune.

Following the death of his mother in 1985, he took five months away from the university and went to Nicaragua where he reported on the aftermath of the Sandinista revolution for Dublin publications.

When he returned to University College, he completed an MA in Anglo-Irish literature, and was awarded a first-class honours.

He spent a year as a postgraduate at Oxford University before moving to South East London.

In 1989, his first short story Last of the Mohicans was published by Ciaran Carty, editor of the Dublin Sunday Tribune’s New Irish Writing page, and his first novel, Cowboys and Indians was published in 1991.

This was followed later the same year by a collection of short stories, True Believers.

Cowboys and Indians got good reviews, became a number one bestseller in Ireland and was nominated in the First Novel category for the Whitbread Prize.

In 1995, he wrote the stage play Red Roses and Petrol, which played to packed houses for several months at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin, and he has also written a number of acclaimed screenplays.

In 2002, the author’s novel Star of the Sea was published, and was a major departure from his previous writing, using ballads, letters and diary entries to tell the story, which was influenced by Dickens and George Eliot. More than a year after publication, the novel was selected as a Richard and Judy Book Club choice and reached number one in the British bestseller lists. The novel has sold more than one million copies, won prizes and accolades around the world, and has been published in almost 40 different languages.

The writer’s next novel, Redemption Falls, continued the multi-voiced narrative approach he developed with Star of the Sea.

The author is married to TV and film writer Anne-Marie Casey, and they have two sons. They have lived in Dublin, London and Manhattan, New York.

* Ghost Light is published by Vintage, priced £7.99, but Guide readers can get it half price at Waterstones in Oxford and Witney using the voucher in the Oxford Mail.