2019 Costa Novel Award
Judges: “An atmospheric novel, offering a thrilling insight into the creative minds of writers and actors.”
While O’Connor has much of interest to say about Stoker and his world, the book comes ultimately to outstay its welcome, turning garrulous and insistent. It seems likely to remain, like much of the growing library of Dracula-centric ephemera, firmly in the shadow of the master.
The theme running through Shadowplay is that of the secret self, the occult wellspring where art and creativity and possibly murder rise from. “In every being who lives, there is a second self very little known to anyone. You who read this have a real person hidden under your better-known personality” runs the epigraph, taken from a biography of Ellen Terry. Where exactly the writer’s self is located within the man of business is the central question of this marvellous novel. Who is the real Stoker, the much-loved theatrical fixer or the lonely man up in the eaves, writing for nobody but a ghost?
The problem with novels about towering historical figures is that most often the author hasn’t the wit or brilliance to capture them, but Shadowplay is a book undaunted... All the wildness, wit and passion don’t come without a price in Shadowplay, any more than in life. As the Victorian era shifts into the new century, what has been gothic and thrilling becomes grotesque in the light of modernity. Never has that reputedly gilded era seemed so pale or flat. As much as this is a hugely entertaining book about the grand scope of friendship and love, it is also, movingly – at times, agonisingly – a story of transience, loss and true loyalty. Fittingly for a novel that flirts with Dracula, Shadowplay also dances with death.
Shadowplay does not set out to be historically accurate. O’Connor takes liberties with everything from the language to the biographical facts... This is a novel you have to take on its own terms — and the rewards for doing so are considerable. Much of it is beautifully written. O’Connor creates a vivid and vigorous world of his own. He makes us believe in his own versions of Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Bram Stoker, and he makes us care what happens to them. Who needs facts when fiction like this is on offer?
In Shadowplay, O’Connor stalks the emergence of Stoker’s one masterpiece just as meticulously as the Ripper does any of his victims... As O’Connor brilliantly shows, Stoker turns his immigrant status in London, his Irish otherness, to creative account in the writing of Dracula. This 19th-century novel also has a good deal to say about uncertain relations between Ireland and England.
A vividly written and atmospheric meditation on the creative process, it has an added poignancy — Bram Stoker died never knowing what a phenomenon Dracula would become.
A plethora of material is packed into Shadowplay, which like Stoker’s novel Dracula, and previous books by O’Connor, most notably Star of the Sea, his acclaimed 2002 bestseller about the Irish famine, is a collage of fictitious documents. Supposed extracts from Stoker’s journals are interleaved with letters, newspaper cuttings, playbills and transcripts of a phonograph recording of Terry. Never a novelist to shirk profusion, O’Connor, whose writing teems with brilliantly animated lists of everything from members of a rowdy London audience to catastrophes during the Lyceum company’s 72-city tour of America, controls it all with superb flair. The panache and subtlety of his prose perfectly match the gusto and creative finesse of the High Victorian world his novel wonderfully evokes.
This is a well-researched historical novel, but happily O’Connor is no pedant: he freely admits that ‘many liberties have been taken with facts, characterisations and chronologies’. Shadowplay is not a history lesson but a work of Gothic splendour, a love letter to a late Victorian aesthetic of noxious greasepaint, haunted theatres and statues that come alive at the witching hour, descending ‘their lichened pedestals in powderclouds of rust’. O’Connor may not be the master of sparing prose, but his writing is always intensely atmospheric. Structurally, the novel is ambitious but not always reader-friendly... It’s a nod to Dracula’s epistolary form, perhaps, but the constant shifts in voice, style and chronology feel more uneven than artful... As a romp through Ripper-ravaged London, Shadowplay is mightily entertaining. But as a meditation on hidden sexuality, it is powerful and poignant.
In a world where most people are acting most of the time, how can real human connections be made? This is the question at the heart of Shadowplay, and one that its three heroes each answer in their own idiosyncratic way. O’Connor’s well-researched theatrical caper offers total immersion in a forgotten London that is nonetheless only just out of reach, and all the more romantic for it. Swallow his stylistic shenanigans and be nourished by a colourful tale of secret love and public performance.
The narrative conceit that the text of Shadowplay is an unpublished roman à clef, given by Stoker to Terry years after the events it describes, is a spark for the action, not an ingredient, despite regular interruptions (“at this point in the manuscript a 97-word paragraph appears in a code that has proven impossible to decipher”). Generally the story unfolds as a lushly enjoyable pastiche of fin-de-siècle prose, in which Victorian euphemism is an authenticating stamp that doubles as a source of humour. Amid a first-night calamity, Stoker “utter[s] many obscene words, in truth the same fricative monosyllable over and over”; a drinker isn’t “drunk” but “somewhat in the grip of German viniculture”... But it’s a virtue of the novel’s set-up that this mostly feels like campy fun, and it’s testament to the novel’s levity that the central idea of Stoker turning Irving into a vampiric aristocrat comes to stand not only for the author’s private working out of his own hidden desires but also as a kind of perverse and ultimately loving revenge on a difficult boss.