Book review: The Illuminations casts shimmering light on life, love and a lost past
by Andrew O’Hagan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The Illuminations, Andrew O'Hagan's fifth novel, centres around the life of Anne Quirk, a woman whose past is slipping away from her. We meet her in sheltered accommodation in Saltcoats, North Ayrshire, fussed over by the well-meaning but officious Maureen whose attentions occasionally tip over into interference.
Maureen is fascinated by her neighbour's mysterious past, documented by a series of evocative photographs. One of them "showed a kitchen sink with old taps and a pair of breakfast bowls waiting to be washed and a milk bottle filled with soapy water".
It is both the beauty and the irony of Anne's situation that as her mind is disintegrating, these photos become the only trigger to her fading memories. She was, Maureen soon discovers, a distinguished documentary photographer in her heyday, whose reputation has fallen by the wayside. She also has a secret in her past, whose details emerge in glimpses throughout the novel.
The illuminations of the title refer to Anne's desire to return to Blackpool, a city with emotional resonance for her, but they can equally apply to the flashes of lucidity O'Hagan handles with such delicacy in the text.
O'Hagan, who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999 for Our Fathers, inhabits his characters with ease and is one of those rare male authors who does women as well as men. Anne's mental disintegration is beautifully and sensitively handled, and O'Hagan charts its course with a poet's precision and a journalist's eye. "One minute, you're getting on with your tasks, the jobs and the life and all your goals and one thing and another, then, just like that, you notice the smell of burning leaves as you walk past the playing-fields."
Anne's internal conflict is counterpointed by an interlinked storyline, which follows her grandson Luke, a captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers, who is on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. In contrast to the contemplative passages detailing Anne's past, the passages in Afghanistan are a blaze of action and banter. O'Hagan has done his research and the life of a modern soldier is vividly portrayed.
The dialogue is fast, furious and shot through with a liberal scattering of obscenities and death metal references. But it is when Luke returns home to Scotland to visit his beloved grandmother that the novel really gathers pace. The uneasy shift from frontline battle to humdrum domestic existence and drunken nights in the pub is subtly drawn.
As Luke tries to forget what he saw in Afghanistan, his grandmother seeks remembrance of things past. Together they set out on a trip to a Blackpool guesthouse where Anne once kept a room and her long-kept secrets begin to float to the surface of her fractured mind.
O'Hagan has cast a shimmering light on love and memory, life and loss, and on the secrets we keep from those closest to us, sometimes even from ourselves.
Guardian News & Media