Joseph O’Connor is a favourite of ours, so I read Shadowplay with obvious bias – his books have long been the doyenne of our book clubs and his first new book in five years does not disappoint.
Set in 1878, Shadowplay is a stunning account of the part of Bram Stoker’s life that led to the creation of his masterpiece Dracula. The book is set in London’s Lyceum theatre, where he worked as general manager. Stoker was heavily influenced by key people and events during his time here.
Having abandoned his boring office job in Dublin, Stoker heads to London with his young wife Florence at his side. In the Big Smoke he discovers the theatre is in a state of decay and disrepair.
The character of Henry Irving plays a key role in shaping Stoker’s time in London. Irving is a demanding actor who owns the theatre with little interest in its day-to-day beyond plying his trade on stage seeking critical acclaim each night.
Ellen Terry, the third in the holy trinity on which the story is based, an alluring actor that both Stoker and Irving adore. She joins the regular cast at the Lyceum which is a turning point for Stoker’s marriage to disintegrate.
Throughout the book there is an undercurrent of sexual desire – not least amongst the holy trinity but it’s also the time in London where the Ripper's crimes have led to a fevered atmosphere of terror and depravity. There is an obvious connection between the blood lust on the streets and how it influenced the horror found in Dracula.
Stoker struggled with his literary endeavours during his life – O’Connor depicts his struggles beautifully whilst also including echoes of Stoker’s Dracula throughout. Please don’t let the mention of Dracula put you off if it wasn’t your cup of tea – this is not a horror story. It’s a beautifully written masterpiece. He weaves in magical mentions of Stoker’s peers at the time such as Oscar Wilde which further fuel the undercurrent of sexual frustration at the time.
The opportunity for discussion around this book is vast not least to explore the complexities of love that stand dangerously outside the social conventions of the time.
This beautifully written novel firmly gets our thumbs up for your next book club read or as a different but enchanting companion to your beach reads.