………………………………….. The dictionary gives six different meanings of the verb to illuminate: to supply with light; to make lucid or clear; to decorate with lights; to enlighten; to make illustrious; and to decorate with colours. It’s no exaggeration to say that Andrew O’Hagan’s latest novel The Illuminations is so cleverly plotted and so wonderfully well written, it does all six!
At the centre of the story are Anne Quirk, now an 82 year old woman with early stage dementia, living in an Ayrshire care home, and her grandson Luke, a 29 year old Army Captain, taking extended leave after an incident involving his platoon in Afghanistan. Together, they embark on a journey to Blackpool for Anne to make one last connection with her past and for Luke to make sense of his future.
For Anne, a successful female photographer of the 1950’s, the past is her lover Harry Blake, who she met in a series of love trysts in Blackpool and which left her with a distorted and inflated opinion of Harry the photographer, a romanticised memory of Harry the man, and a daughter, Alice, who she’s never quite come to terms with. Luke on the other hand has already gone in search of that figure from his past when he goes from completing his University degree in English Liternature to the army, in a sort of search to understand his soldier father, who was killed in action in Northern Ireland. Now he’s retreated to his grandmother, with whom he’s always been close, in the wake of an ambush in Helmand which leads to the death of both British soldiers and Afghan civilians.
It’s a book of contrasts, each one in a sense giving light and shadow. There’s the more typical light and shade of war, of memories, of family relationships, and of the past and present. Then there are the slightly less typical contrasts of Scotland and Afghanistan and of the ordinariness of Anne’s reality in the care home with the almost mythological status she has among fellow residents and staff. Perhaps the strongest contrast of all is between art and the shade which everyday life can cast over it, for there’s a real tension between the artistic nature of both characters and their subsequent lives. Anne’s pioneering art captures the raw power and rather stark beauty of everyday life with her ‘kitchen-sink images’, yet the everyday life she led away from Harry and their Blackpool trysts is anything but powerful or beautiful in her memories. For Luke, he swaps the language of poetry and literature for the sharp, crude, patois of the British Army, and swaps the education into creativity and imagination which his grandmother gave him, for the rigidity and rule book life of a soldier.
Similarly, the bond between both the main characters, which shows such a depth of love and trust between Luke and his grandmother contrasts with the relationship they both have with Alice, whose recollection of her father Harry, as a man who probably wouldn’t remember their names, is very much at odds with her mothers glowing memories of him. And in same way that Alice is excluded from her mothers re-cast memory of the past, she’s also frozen out of her son Luke’s life, in part by his feelings about his father and in part by his relationship with his grandmother – it’s as if the family bond simply skips a generation.
This is a wonderfully layered book, which has such strong characters and such a gritty realistic feel from start to finish. And as I said at the start it illuminates in every sense of the word: from the descriptions of the way Anne uses light in her photographs; to the lure of those Blackpool lights; the way Anne’s love for Luke cuts through the fog of her dementia at times to illuminate her moods; the light it shines on those themes of family, relationships and the shadows cast by people’s pasts; it enlightens the reader on the unique atmosphere and cameraderie among soldiers more than in any novel I’ve ever read; and Andrew O’Hagan does it all with a prose which draws colour from the darkest events and the starkest of settings – whether it’s a Helmand I know only from TV news footage or the damp, grey streets of seaside Ayrshire towns that I know from personal experience!
I have to admit I’ve long been a fan of Andrew O’Hagan since I read his book ‘Our Fathers’ some time ago. He’s a writer who seems to make use of real events or people to create his fiction, but equally he’s not afraid to tackle difficult subjects either – and The Illuminations is no exception. Since finishing the book I’ve read that the character of Anne is in part based on Margaret Watkins a Scottish-Canadian photographer and the character of Harry Blake is linked to another well known photographer, Bert Hardy, who chronicled working class life in Glasgow. Even the battle in which Luke’s platoon are ambushed, at Kajaki Dam, really did take place with horrendous consequences for the Agfghani civilians. But of course it’s one thing to research the lives of others or events in war and quite another to blend it all together in a novel which is as powerful and engrossing as The Illuminations is. August Sander, the celebrated German photographer once said ‘In photography there is no shadow that cannot be illuminated’. And the writing of Andrew O’Hagan is exactly the same! This is a great book!
The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan was published by Faber and Faber in 2015. I bought my copy with my own hard earned cash.
If you are interested in reading what others thought of the book, there are several in the press but if you want a more personalised opinion, I would recommend the reviews at Fuelled By Fiction and an interview with the author at the Scottish Review of Books.
Margaret Watkins, on whom the main character was based, was a Canadian photographer who ultimately became well known for her photographs of life in Scotland (Some of which are above). Her work is currently being shown at The Hidden Lane Gallery in Glasgow, where she lived for most of her life
Lastly, I took the title of my review from a poem by the Japanese poet Kobyashi Issa.
Book Ratings ( for info my book rating scale click here)