The Illuminations

True personality floats beneath surface consciousness, obscured by the fog of dementia or the fog of war. To meet what one is can affirm or destroy. This theme works its way ever so deftly through the parallel developments of two characters in Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations. Anne Quirk resides in a care home on the Scottish cost, west of Glasgow. Luke Campbell, her grandson, soldiers for a Scottish regiment in Afghanistan. Their self-recognition, respectively and jointly, is the climax of the novel’s plot; hence the novel’s title, the grand lighting-up of the English seaside resort of Blackpool. 

O’Hagan is a writer of many voices: he impersonates Marilyn Monroe’s dog in his earlier Life and Opinions of Maf, The Dog, and a pederast priest in Be Near Me. [The latter a work of insight and justice.] His third person narrations in The Illuminations offer us the surface life of the failing Anne through fragmented speech in dialogue and in carefully observed gesture or facial movement. In effect, O’Hagan takes on the fears so many of us have – the blank of demented senescence. He offers a conditional hope mediated by great respect. His male protagonist is a soldier, an officer, committed to his men, if not to his mission. Certainly his fractured self is alive in marvelously sustained dialogue, the “slagging” vulgarity which constitutes the verbal shield under which his squad operates amid the ambushes, the haze of marihuana, and the deceits of the Afghan war. The novel alternates its scenes between Lochranza Court, Anne’s care home, and a mountain road in Afghanistan where Luke and his men are in convoy on a so-say humanitarian mission. The venture ends in massacre and disgrace – the ignominious fall of Luke’s mentor, Major Scullion, and Luke’s own disillusionment.

What buoys to the surface in the interplay of the two characters is Anne’s earlier life as a pioneer woman photographer and Luke’s tutelage by her when a child. “Anne had given him the world not as it was, but as it might be.” He appreciated color – “light on fire” – and with Anne’s encouragement opened to an artist’s view of life. That he chose soldiering was a function of his search for his father - killed in action in Northern Ireland decades before. As the plot brings the two characters together physically, Luke discovers in his grandmother’s trove of photographs, and in the hidden life that she led in Blackpool, a redemptive vision.  This is complicated by what he learns of his Grandfather Harry’s weakness and infidelity. Yet Luke helps her salvage a few final days of recollection amid familiar surroundings, and he sees in her a reaffirmation of what he had known as a younger man – the need to live “a life proportionate to his nature.” There is no sentimentality in this: a recognition of Anne’s genius left unfulfilled through betrayal and tragedy. She might win posthumous fame – her work is perhaps to be exhibited – but Anne is incapable of living on her own. As a further casualty Luke’s mother, Alice, has lived estranged from the very kinship she sees in the relationship between her mother and her grandson. Anne has failed as a mother. The concluding scene has Luke watching Anne on the seaside in Blackpool, laughing with her old friend, but at the merciful play of the winds even as she reaches for the sun. He can envision, at least, a reconciliation with his mother.

The remarkable contrast between scenes of domestic routine in the care home – the Memory Club meetings that provide a stimulus for Anne’s remembrances and a useful device for exposition – and the battle scenes in Afghanistan add a tension that gets a pale reflection in the sub-plot involving Maureen, Anne’s neighbor and advocate. She is at war with her family, strategically destroying any hopes for familial understanding, and at a loss to stop herself from doing so. The darker extension of conflict is the suicide of Major Scallion, who caps a career that moves from idealism to despair, a path Luke himself chooses not to follow.

O’Hagan’s rendering of the “feel” of a care home and that of a tawdry club where Luke surrenders to music, sex and drugs is of equal power by way of contrast. Underlying all of Luke’s worries is his fundamental concern for the men he commanded, the nineteen year olds who put their fates into his hands, and to whom, in the end, he has little to say – but much to respect. Only in his rediscovery of himself in the person and the artwork of his now dependent grandmother, can he find that life that has “proportion to his gifts. “

O’Hagan is a remarkable story-teller. For me, he can’t write a bad sentence. Would that the decline into dementia might always yield such recognition.


Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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