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.