Frank Parker's Reviews > Shadowplay

Shadowplay by Joseph O'Connor
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it was amazing

There is so much to praise about this book it's hard to know where to begin.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to read a number of excellent books in 2019, several of them award winners. I have given a five star rating to several. I now know that was premature. To rate Shadowplay by comparison to the others would require me to award it at least seven.
But let me state before I go any further that I found the first few chapters a little disconcerting, with their assortment of points of view, the combination of narrative and imagined letters and newspaper articles. I urge anyone who might be put off by these devices to persevere. You will be well rewarded.
This tale of the intertwined lives of Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Bram Stoker is nothing short of a masterpiece. The use of language, the dialogue, the descriptive passages are so good they leave the reader open mouthed with admiration. As an aspiring writer I know I can never hope to reach such a high standard. The way the characters emerge from the page, the way they develop, learning from life and from each other as they age is extraordinary.
Irving is depicted as a narcissist and a bully, yet one that is loved and admired by all who work with and for him, none more so than Bram who suffers incredibly under the older man's vicious tongue – and the way such exchanges are depicted is one of the many miracles of this book – so much so that at one point a frustrated Bram floors Irving with a blow to the jaw that dislodges a tooth.
Irving responds with an abject written apology, begging forgiveness.
But I must not give away too much of the story. I reveal this much only to illustrate the magnificence of the imagination that created this book which apparently began as a screenplay, broadcast by BBC Radio Three.
The behind-the-scenes life of a late Victorian theatre company, in the Lyceum Theatre that Irving captains, on tour in Britain and the USA, is rendered as if by magic, including the friendly ghost that inhabits the rat infested attic and roams the maize of corridors, back offices and workshops observing the eccentricities of the living.
If I must pick some aspect of this work to praise above the rest it would be the final part, the “Coda” in which the elderly Stoker and Terry go about their various busyness; Stoker nearing death at what today would be regarded as the young age of 65. Each engages in reminiscences and ruminations on their respective lives and times in witty yet moving passages that are full of phrases – whole pages even – that are destined to become well worn quotations. The passage in which O'Connor presents us with Terry's thoughts on men and marriage is a work of genius on its own.
O'Connor's status as one of the greats of Irish writing is confirmed by this novel, which won the Irish Novel of the Year Award just a couple of weeks ago. It will be a travesty if it does not go on to win a clutch of international awards in 2020.
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Reading Progress

November 12, 2019 – Started Reading
November 30, 2019 – Shelved
November 30, 2019 – Finished Reading

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