Andrew O’Hagan: The Illuminations



When Gert was a schoolgirl, a couple of years ago, a posh visiting priest (escaped from the Anglicans) made the Rolls Royce argument for God as the creator of the universe.

Imagine that the parts of a Rolls Royce are laid out on the ground, he said. All the parts are there, in perfect condition but unless some intelligence puts them together there will be no Rolls Royce. The Illuminations is a bit like that. The parts are of high quality, but there’s a problem: they seem to be from different cars, a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, maybe, and a high-powered off-road vehicle built for rugged terrain.

Two stories are interwoven, that of Anne Quirk, in her youth a cutting-edge photographer in New York and England but now sliding into dementia in a small town in Ayrshire, and that of her grandson Luke, serving his second tour of duty in Afghanistan after four stints in Iraq. Anne’s past is mysterious: why did she abandon her career so abruptly, and what happened to her fighter-pilot lover Harry? Still aristocratically stylish at 82, she is seen from four perspectives. There is the kindly but plebeian neighbour Maureen – People who didn’t know Maureen immediately had her respect, as if not knowing her was part of their achievement ; there is Anne’s held-at-arms-length daughter Alice – Alice had lived with a mother who thought her daughter lacked something, and now, aged fifty, Alice wondered if she couldn’t mount one last attempt to change her mind. The problem was that Alice slightly agreed with her mother’s view of her ; there is Anne’s own fracturing memory – Anne’s mind opened into itself. She thought of water for a second and the warm baths she used to draw. Children don’t like it too warm. The same as a photographic solution… ; and, finally, there is the perspective of her grandson Luke, the only person really close to her since the long-ago death of Harry.

He could still see her standing near the window with a magnifying glass and an old catalogue, sitting him down to explain things. Even when speaking to a boy she spoke as a person not only ready to invest in you but ready to bear the costs to the end. In Helmand, he already understood that Anne was now ill, and, thinking of her, he realised her quest had long since become part of who he was himself. It was inside him. He didn’t yet know what her quest was, but he had never forgotten that by going round galleries with him and talking about books, Anne had given him the world not as it was but as it might be.

 But Luke’s reflections seem pallid, insubstantial, in the midst of the strongly-conveyed heat, macho jousting and constant menace of his life as an army captain in Helmand Province. And that’s where the problem starts for me. One thread of the story is so delicate, the other is so loud and strong. And the idea of “the quest” that might tie such different journeys together is never fully realised, or even explored in a sustained way. The other women characters, Maureen and Alice, wander through the narrative in their own little bubbles of uncertainty and self-doubt while their families cheerfully pigeonhole them, and it is hard to know just what we’re meant to make of this, except that it’s clear O’Hagan has a liking for, and sympathy with, women. And in Maureen and Alice, as well as in Luke, we see O’Hagan’s fascination with the way individual decisions often surge up half-understood from our contacts and collisions with the people closest to us.

Luke does come back from Afghanistan, after a terrible experience there that destroys his idealistic visions of the good fight. Disillusioned, he rackets about the pubs and bars of Glasgow for a while before the contact with his grandmother seems to exert a steadying influence on him. The novel ends with a trip they take together to Blackpool to see the famous Illuminations, a trip back into Anne’s past that finally unfolds for Luke and for us the story of what happened between her and Harry – which, as it turns out, is not a particularly surprising story. Well and truly overshadowing it, for me, was the remarkable story of Major Scullion, Luke’s commanding officer, a character so big that he bursts the bounds of the book. What are we to do with him? I still don’t know.

Reading this book as a writer, I was acutely aware of the question of voice. There are many voices, of varying degrees of authenticity. When O’Hagan claims to be speaking the mind of a character, all too often the writer’s voice interferes.   This is not just a problem with some rather stiff dialogue between Luke and his fellow-officers about the morality of war, but, more seriously, with the rendering of Anne’s inner thoughts:

Nobody ever tells you that natural world has all the answers and keeps count of all the days. They don’t tell you – you work it out. 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. The seasons seem for a long time to ask nothing of you, but eventually you must brave their familiarity.

Here is the problem of the voice that is neither unmediated first person, nor close third person, but something in between. Presented as Anne’s thoughts, it’s unconvincing. This wavering of voice is perhaps one of the reasons I never felt I had a true sense of her.

Many readers will disagree with what I’ve said here. O’Hagan has cast a shimmering light on love and memory, life and loss, says The Guardian review.

On the other hand, Gerard Windsor has reservations that chimed with my feelings: There’s a classic, action-packing novelist in O’Hagan; he wants colourful drama and mystery, notably involving illicit affairs and lost children. But his handling of the obligatory turning points and denouements of such tales can be awkward and gratuitously timed.

Windsor may be on to something in pointing to O’Hagan’s distinguished career as a journalist and his own comment that he’s drawn to walking the boundary between fiction and non-fiction. In this case, I don’t think he’s managed it. O’Hagan is always interesting, and there are many good things in this book – it just doesn’t make a Rolls Royce.

4 thoughts on “Andrew O’Hagan: The Illuminations

    1. I did have problems with Anne. There’s some very good writing about her, but it just doesn’t jell. I rather liked the character Maureen but it was almost as if she was there as a character sketch in her own right.

  1. A very interesting review, especially your commentary on the varying degrees of authenticity in the different voices. I can see how that would lead to some of the difficulties you’ve mentioned here. Also, I recall catching an audio review of this novel on arts programme a few years ago and wondering if there might be too much going on in the narrative. Too many threads or themes running through it, some more successful than others…

  2. It’s interesting that you had that thought. I was surprised after I wrote this rv to find a rv in one of the journals here that praised it as a “war novel” and subordinated the Anne story.

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