Set between Saltcoats, Blackpool and Afghanistan, Andrew O’Hagan’s fifth novel, The Illuminations, tells the story of Anne Quirk and her nephew Luke as they delve into Anne’s past and confront the disintegration of identity, both personal and national. Anne was a leader in the field of documentary photography in the sixties but now lives in sheltered housing as she succumbs to the early stages of dementia. Luke signed up to fight in Afghanistan to “make [the world] safe” but has since hung up his uniform claiming “I shamed it and it shamed me”. They have a special relationship based on their shared appreciation of art and on Luke’s return they set out to Blackpool in the hope that the Illuminations will also shed some light on their family history.
Anne is simultaneously pitiable and ridiculous. She is “both fading away and becoming known”. Yet she is revealed to us as one who may grate on the readers’ sensibilities. She places art above all else, looking down on those, such as her daughter, who cannot “see” as she does , and she often says unpleasant things, which other characters write off as being merely a symptom of her condition. She places Harry, the mysterious father of her daughter on a pedestal, and admits to herself that she “found it hard sometimes to tell the difference between Luke and Harry”. But as the book progresses we begin to wonder how much of Anne’s story is real, and how much she has created. As a photographer, she was skilled at capturing a single moment, and we slowly realise that we are seeing “the sad life…she had framed so perfectly for their eyes” and we must learn to “see what happens behind a photograph”.
It is Alice, Anne’s daughter and Luke’s mother, who is the rightful recipient of our compassion. Made to feel like a “little demon of reality” by her mother who “thought her daughter lacked something”, Alice has “always been bullied by the powerful stories that surrounded her and diminished her”, that of her father, her husband, and now her son. Anne has always been too obsessed with the men in her life, too wrapped up in her grandson and the legend of Harry, to lavish any love or attention on her daughter. “Her mother’s investment in her own life had left Alice out in the cold”. And now, in her old age, she believes her daughter “blamed her for everything” and her “main goal was to put her in a nursing home”. Rather than pity Anne as an elderly women struggling with an insidious disease, it is hard not to feel contempt for a person who places their own emotional needs above that of their child, especially at the close of the novel when the Blackpool illuminations reveal the truth about Anne’s story. Bereft of those close to her, she has succeeded in placing a barrier between her and the one person who should have been most important, and her special relationship with Luke feels like a slap in the face to her daughter. You weren’t good enough, she says, but he is.
The characters in The Illuminations are initially hard to engage with, although by the end we have a greater understanding of their motivations and the plot itself is far from a page turner. Additionally, the Afghanistan passages resemble scenes from Full Metal Jacket, with the military terminology flying over the readers’ heads like the munitions they are describing. However, one thing which cannot be faulted is O’Hagan’s skilfully and poignantly crafted prose, which is definitely the highlight of the book. Though there may be few other hooks for the reader to hang their emotional hat on, it is hard not to feel a tug or two when life is exposed and laid before us so expertly.