The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan, book review: Shining a light on love, memory, and the Afghan war

The book isn’t about suspense; it’s about patterns which are repeated through generations of families and nations

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The Independent Culture

In his fifth novel, Andrew O’Hagan examines topical subjects – war, nationalism, technology – and eternal themes like family and the effects of time.

As you’ll expect if you’ve read his other novels, which include the Man Booker shortlisted Be Near Me, he achieves this with such elegance that it’s easy to underestimate the power of The Illuminations until its ending. Several times I was reminded of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections because O’Hagan dramatises the ways lives twist and turn in concert with history, locating the precious and profound in the everyday. “There is no such thing as an ordinary life,” he writes and The Illuminations confirms this.

Much of the novel is divided into parallel narratives, concerning Luke, a 29-year-old British Army captain in Afghanistan, and his grandmother, Anne, who’s suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease back in Scotland. A celebrated photographer in the 1960s, Anne now lives at an assisted living complex, where she’s supported by her friendly neighbour, Maureen. O’Hagan deftly switches between Anne’s muddled present and mysterious past which is dominated by her romance with the late Harry. “I don’t think my father even remembered our names,” says Anne’s daughter Alice. However, Anne has fond memories of Harry as a charismatic photography teacher and war hero.

In contrast to Anne’s quiet days on the Scottish coast, Luke’s tour of Afghanistan provides a dramatic change of pace. American veterans, including Kevin Powers and Phil Klay, have written memorable fiction about recent wars but O’Hagan relies on imagination, empathy and members of the Royal Irish Regiment who, according to his publishers, “have been answering his questions since he began The Illuminations.” The military insights (“The time to start worrying on a mission is when the boys are being too nice to one another”) and dialogue, which fizzes with derangement and tenderness, shows he listens closely.  

The squaddies are obsessed with video game simulations of war but, as a literature graduate, Luke is different. His father was killed in Northern Ireland, serving in the same regiment, so is Luke’s career choice surprising? Anne says “men are sentimental about institutions” but that doesn’t really explain why Luke enlisted. The novel’s literariness is occasionally jarring. It’s not impossible that a soldier would read Wallace Stevens, as Luke does, but his superior, Scullion, who has a weakness for Kipling and scotch, comes across as a general from a bygone age. These are quibbles but realist fiction must be plausible and, for some readers, they might be more of an obstacle to enjoying the novel than they were for me. 

That would be a shame because there’s much to admire and consider. “It wears away at you,” Scullion says of war, “there’s less of you every day.” He proves this by making a catastrophic blunder which causes the death of Mark McNulty, a young soldier. In a novel peppered with Beatles’ lyrics, Scullion is a nowhere man, as is Harry, and the men echo each other: “People who read books aren’t reading them properly if they stop with the books,” says Scullion. “You’ve got to go out eventually and test it all against reality.” Anne remembers Harry urging photographers to “get out of the studio” in to the streets.

Documentary creates its own fictions but O’Hagan probably agrees with his characters that artists should confront the “real world”. Even the most erudite novelists can sound out of touch when describing contemporary Britain, but O’Hagan strikes few false notes. Whether depicting a seaside B&B, conversations between old ladies, or grotty bars which are appealing for three reasons (“‘cheap drink, cheap drink and cheap drink’”), I never doubt that he knows whereof he speaks. His characters’ quirks are well-observed, especially the way Maureen is kind and intimate with Anne but cold towards her own family.

Like Norman Mailer, whose ambition informs O’Hagan’s fiction and journalism, he engages with the tensions of his time. But O’Hagan also describes emotions and landscapes in the style of a less-melodious F Scott Fitzgerald. Images of light, in photography, war, and Blackpool Illuminations, link the novel’s settings. Back from Afghanistan, Luke takes Anne to Blackpool, where “light travelled up the tower and spread from there like a beautiful, endless halo,” and where she used to enjoy holidays with Harry. Walking along the promenade, following a reunion with Army buddies, Luke thinks “the dark water seemed experienced and alive”.

The truth about Harry, when it’s revealed, is no big surprise but The Illuminations isn’t about suspense; it’s about patterns which are repeated through generations of families and nations, the confluences of the personal and historical, art and life. “You don’t see the connections in your life until it’s too late to disentangle them,” says Alice. Meanwhile, people like Mark McNulty become photographs, memories, “borne back ceaselessly,” as Fitzgerald wrote, “into the past.”