Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

"The Illuminations" by Andrew O'Hagan (Faber and Faber, 2015)

Maureen is in sheltered housing, grumpy that her children neglect her. Anne's there too, becoming demented, but she used to be a promising photographer.

In a photograph pinned above the kettle, the face of George Formby was peeking round a door. 'Turned out nice again!' it said in ink under his name, a curly signature. He was smiling for the whole of Britain. The electricity sockets were covered over with Elastoplast, and the rings on the cooker were out of bounds too, taped over with a saltire of white plastic tape. Maureen thought it was like the stuff the police put up around the murder scene in those crime dramas. No hot kettles or rings. It was Jackie the warden's decision.

Maureen helps Anne, who has a 50 year-old daughter Alice with some problems of her own (widowed, father died in action in Ulster), and a grandson Luke, 29, who did an eng-lit degree. "Alice's doctor ... said the thing with dementia was that it trapped the sufferer in vagueness and spoiled the offspring's hopes for a satisfying close, especially if the relationship had been difficult" (p.21)

The scene changes. We're in Afghanistan where Luke is a captain in the army, respected by his colleagues, his reputation for bookishness doing him no harm. The complications of who to befriend, who to fight, and how to built and protect infrastructure are discussed. There's lots of wise-cracking banter. He thinks "Everything is dense with itself out there; everything is thick with its own crazed lack of known limits" (p.42). "He felt he needed [Anne] more than ever, her wanted her close, the person who once revealed to him a world beyond the obvious" (p.43). He has discussions with Major Scullion (48, childless, just divorced) about aesthetics. Jargon (e.g. "2M2H") is used and explained. We dip into the main characters' heads - "They called him the Leper, the Leprechaun, or Sean-Sean. He was the sergeant and got respect from the boys without trying. To Scullion, Sergeant Docherty was too private and too calm: by that stage of the game the major needed friends who raised the volume and showed their weaknesses" (p.59)

Back at the sheltered housing, matters are more confused. Anne's imaginative tendencies complicates diagnosis. Maureen frequently talks to Alice on the phone. Alice thinks that "Anne had failed as a mother on nearly every front, but fantasy would carry her all the the. Everybody, including Alice's own son Luke, would pity the sad life of sacrifice she had framed so perfectly for the eyes". Maureen likes her routine, and when her family visits she's not in truth very welcoming.

Luke's having problems with Scullion (who seems to be having mental problems) and Rashid (an Afghan captain working with the army). After unnecessary deaths in a village (the reckless captain nearly gets himself killed), Luke resigns.

When Luke meets Alice back in Glasgow he's disillusioned. She regrets knowing so little about her mother and father (they never married, and neighbours often had to look after Alice), and asks Luke to intercede with Anne on her behalf. Gordon, Alice's new entrepreneurian husband, arrives. He and Luke don't get on. Anne's work is being rediscovered by a gallery in Canada, where she used to live. Luke visits Scullion in hospital soon before the Major kills himself.

Luke takes Anne to Blackpool hoping to stir memories. She owns part of a house there. The landlady fills Luke in on Anne's past, and on Harry (who wasn't a war hero, who was married and rarely with Anne). There's a stash of Anne's old work. Throughout the book there are scattered Beatles lyrics. There's a photo of J.Lennon amongst the stash.

The Maureen character seems awkwardly peripheral, and the Scullion character feels contrived, which gives the novel a literary, constructed feel. I liked most the scenes with the old people.

Other reviews

  • Elizabeth Day (O’Hagan, who was shortlisted for the Booker in 1999 for Our Fathers, inhabits his characters with ease and is one of those rare male authors who does women as well as men. Anne’s mental disintegration is beautifully and sensitively handled, and O’Hagan charts its course with a poet’s precision and a journalist’s eye)
  • Lucy Daniel (Despite the pull of Anne’s story, the book’s most engaging moments are in Afghanistan)
  • Max Liu (The novel’s literariness is occasionally jarring. ... His characters’ quirks are well-observed, especially the way Maureen is kind and intimate with Anne but cold towards her own family.)
  • Stuart Kelly (A book which addresses the problems of an aging population, gaming technology as army recruitment, broken relationships between couples and generations, the ethics of foreign military intervention and even a nod to the arguments of the independence referendum might be accused of substituting the merely contemporary for the enduringly relevant, but they are choreographed with such graciousness that this never feels like a feature piece or opinion column inflated into a novel.)
  • Adam Kirsch (An artist himself, O’Hagan exalts Anne’s evanescent truths of vision and perception, the ones that she captured in her old pictures, over the suspect truths of ideology and patriotism)

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