The secrets we keep from each other but often even from ourselves: caught in their protective web of deception the cast of characters in Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations are people who find varying levels of enlightenment.
Octogenarian Anne Quirk is one of the deceivers. In a sheltered home in Scotland, she is succumbing to dementia, deemed unsafe to cook for herself or let anywhere near an electric oven. Under the watchful eye of her kindly neighbour Maureen, Anne’s internal conflict with the past comes to life through disconnected fragments of memories and stacks of photographs. They reveal she was a ground breaking photographer in her younger days whose work “captured a world beyond the obvious.” It’s not until her beloved grandson returns from his tour of duty in Afghanistan and takes her back to a Blackpool guesthouse, that the secrets of Anne’s life are illuminated. Only then does it seem that she can be at peace.
As his grandmother tries to remember the long-ago past, Luke is trying to put his own past behind him. He’s returned to Scotland, a disillusioned young man whose army career is over as a result of a catastrophic episode when he was part of a convoy in Helmand province. Through some fast-paced chapters set in Afghanistation it becomes clear that the episode represented an epiphany for Luke; the moment he acknowledged to himself that he had joined the army purely to find the kind of man he hoped his father, who died serving his country, had been. For years he’d buried this knowledge beneath a cloak of camaraderie with the men under his command, smoking marijuana and listening to heavy metal while they patrolled the desert for booby traps. But the increasingly erratic behaviour of his commanding officer strips him of his illusions.
Not all the characters in O’Hagan’s novel encounter anything comparable to the illuminating moments that Luke and Anne experience. Maureen for example is clearly a woman who’s concocted a deceit about her relationship with her children. She regularly boasts about her children and and how much success they’ve made of their lives (blithely ignoring the fact that one of them is an alcoholic). She regularly complains that they are always too busy to visit her — yet when they do, she clearly can’t stand them and cannot wait for them to leave.
The slow paced contemplative sections of the novel contrast with the sections on the front line which blaze with action and vivid dialogue. O’Hagan seems very comfortable handling both the very male world of the army with its obscenity laden, swaggering dialogue and the domestic rituals of the women in the home. He effortlessly moves from the small and often humorous observation: “It was a constant battle in Maureen’s head, the wonder of central heating versus the benefit of fresh air…” to bigger issues of the ethics of foreign military intervention or the fractured parent/child relationship. He also deals sensitively, though not sentimentally, with Anne’s dementia describing it not as the shutting down of a life but the re-awakening of an old one. Anne’s estranged daughter Alice tells her doctor she wishes she could spend half an hour with her mother as a young woman. “She hasn’t gone,” he whispered. “Quite the opposite. She’s coming back. And maybe you could prepare to meet her half-way. Between the person she is now Andy the person she used to be.
This ability to flex between the macro and the microcosm could be one of the reasons the judges of the Man Booker Prize chose it for the 2015 longlist. Will it make it to the final accolade or will this be third time unlucky for O’Hagan? My sense is it’s not the winner. The sections dealing with Anne are well observed but not remarkable so the strength of the novel really rests on the Afghanistan chapters. Without those for me this would have been an Ok novel but with them it’s one that’s well worth reading.
The Illuminations is published by Faber.
Andrew O’Hagan is a Scottish novelist, non-fiction author and an editor of Esquire and the London Review of Books. He currently works as a a creative writing fellow at King’s College London.
I blame the people who run our public library service. They’ve made it too darn easy to reserve books on line. Don’t they know there are members like me who just can’t stop themselves acquiring books? It’s really not my fault that I am faced with a glut of books and only a few weeks in which to read them because we go on holiday in three weeks and I don’t want to lug hard cover books around with me in Germany. It surely couldn’t have been me that went into the reservation system the day the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced on Wednesday and clicked on three titles that were already available. Just as it wasn’t me a few weeks ago who did something similar on the night the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize was announced.
Sometime you can wait months for a reserved book to become available (I often forget I’ve even requested some of the books) but yesterday I dropped into the local branch to say farewell to one of the librarians. When she handed me three books that had just arrived, she burst into giggles at the horrified look on my face. I left, trying to work out how I was going to get through them and concluding one of them would probably have to be returned unopened. Just as I was getting into the car she came running up to me; she’d found another one that I’d reserved.
So now I have on my bedside table three Booker prize candidates:
The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
The Green Road by Anne Enright
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
And a fourth is a novel that I requested about two months ago The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw.
All of these are calling out to me but I had to make a start somewhere. Since O’Hagan was on the top that became the one I started yesterday. It’s such a well written novel about two characters; one an elderly lady who is trying to remember her life when she was a photographer of note and her grandson who is trying to forget his time as a soldier in Afghanistan. O’Hagan is as insightful when he is portraying life in a care home and the onset of dementia as when he is portraying life on the front line in Helmand province and the mental disintegration of a career solider. It’s one of those novels that you just have to keep reading, reading, reading. If you want go get a taste of this novel there is an extract in The Daily Telegraph from one of the Afghanistan sections.
I admit defeat. I am clearly not skilled in the art of book prize predictions. When the Man Booker prize judges announced their 2015 longlist today I found that none of the titles that came up in my crystal ball yesterday made the cut. Not one. I had floated briefly with nominating one of the titles that did get chosen: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Not that I’ve read it yet (I’m planning to take it with me on holiday in a few weeks) but it has been getting a lot of exposure recently and sounded like the kind of novel the judges would choose.
My reactions to the list are rather mixed.
On the plus side I was relieved that Kazuo Ishiguro and Kate Atkinson were not listed but disappointed that Colm Tóibín didnt get get selected.
On the plus side I’m delighted that the list contains so many authors that are new to me. But the diversity seems to have dissipated. Last year there were no long listed titles from the Commonwealth countries but five from USA. This year we have five USA authors again but only one each from Jamaica, New Zealand and India.
- Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape) by Bill Clegg, a literary agent from USA. This is his debut novel
- The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) by Anne Enright. The Dublin-born author is a previous Booker Prize winner with The Gathering in 2007
- A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications) by Marlon James, born in Kingston, Jamaica
- The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing) by Laila Lalami, born in Morocco and now living in USA. This novel was shortlisted for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize
- Satin Island (Jonathan Cape) by Tom McCarthy, a Londoner
- The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press) by Chigozie Obioma, Nigerian born now living in North America. This is his first novel
- The Illuminations (Faber & Faber) by Andrew O’Hagan, the Scottish born author is a previous Booker shortlisted author with Our Fathers, in 1999
- Lila (Virago) by Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2005 for Gilead
- Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus) by Anuradha Roy, born in Calcutta, India
- The Year of the Runaways (Picador) by Sunjeev Sahota, born in Derbyshire, UK.
- The Chimes (Sceptre) by Anna Smaill, a New Zealander. This is her debut novel
- A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus) by Anne Tyler, American born, previously nominated for a Pulitzer prize
- A Little Life (Picador) by Hanya Yanagihara, the second novel by this American author
Im not sure I’ll get to read many of these before the shortlist is announced on October 13. My interest is leading towards The Year of the Runaways, The Illuminations and The Fishermen.
For other views on the list take a look at:
Tags: 2015 Man Booker Prize, Andrew O'Hagan, Anna Smaill, Anne Enright, Anne Tyler, Anuradha Roy, Bill Clegg, Chigozie Obioma, Hanya Yanagihara, Laila Lalami, Marilynne Robinson, Marlon James, Sunjeev Sahota, Tom McCarthy