The Illuminations by Andrew O'Hagan - book review: Tale of love and loss sheds light on the human experience

O'Hagan's novel asks how far realism can represent truth, fusing imaginative invention and documentary fact

In the subtly astonishing first paragraph of this exceptional novel, Maureen awakens to snow. She's a lass on a train, travelling with her father over a border into Ayrshire. But no, for "Maureen opened her eyes and found that sixty years had gone by... Snowflakes poured from the streetlamp like sparks from a bonfire." Memory is stirred by the trickery of light. Intimately characterised like all O'Hagan's people, Maureen lives in a retirement home, alongside the remarkable Anne Quirk, once a pioneering documentary realist photographer, now at 82 suffering early-stage dementia.

O'Hagan's fifth novel expresses its chiaroscuro vision through quietly ingenious trompe l'oeil devices, the narrative sliding between war and peace, youth and age, memory and desire. Anne drifts along a dark path mined with secrets she has kept from herself. Her photographs reveal a person of singular vision. Coming across a picture of "a kitchen sink with old taps" that "shone like nothing on earth", Maureen wonders amazedly over "the young woman who could make a picture like that."

Who was Anne, when she was herself? O'Hagan's story oscillates between Anne and her beloved grandson, Luke, an army captain in Afghanistan. Sensitive and cultured, Luke, who was nurtured by his grandmother, finds himself in a world of violent delusion. In a mission to bring electric light to Taliban-infested villages, his men are implicated in a massacre.

What has Anne's plight to do with Luke's – and how does this involve us? Each pole of O'Hagan's story is a metaphor for the other: the novel attempts a universalising statement. Its flaws – wearing both mind and heart on its sleeve; a wandering narrative voice; hackneyed plot resolution – are redeemed by eloquence, insight and authenticity. O'Hagan's people are all conflicted and, at their worst, well-meaning.

Fighting a deluded Western war, teenagers are led to commit atrocity by Major Scullion, a burnt-out warrior in process of disintegration. "What is wrong with you, Charlie? Are you losing your mind?" Luke demands. The madman leads the lost. When Luke comes home to Anne, they seek lucidity together in a shared journey into her past.

We like to call novels "important" when they offer little more than a bag of flashy tricks. But The Illuminations is important. It's a work of conscience and empathy that ponders its own processes. O'Hagan is perhaps our most emotionally intelligent living novelist. His new novel asks how far realism can represent truth, fusing imaginative invention and documentary fact.

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