Art, memory, love, war: Andrew O’Hagan’s fifth novel, The Illuminations, tosses familiar enough novelistic tropes our way. What makes it remarkable, in part, is a bravura performance in which O’Hagan moves seamlessly between a seniors’ complex in coastal Scotland and the baked landscapes of war-torn Afghanistan. If O’Hagan were an R&B singer, he’d be Mariah Carey in her octaval heyday.
But he is more often described as a limber Scottish journalist and novelist twice nominated for the Man Booker Prize. O’Hagan is also a contributing editor to the London Review of Books, where his memorable essay about attempting to ghost-write Julian Assange’s autobiography appeared last year.
The Illuminations has a Canadian connection, O’Hagan’s protagonist, Anne Quirk, having been inspired by the early 20th century Hamilton-born photographer Margaret Watkins, who infused her not-famous-enough images of the domestic everyday with an iconic otherworldliness. O’Hagan plays with chronology (Watkins was born a few decades later than Anne) but hews to the central tragedy of Watkins’ life, which is that she abandoned a brilliant career in New York to care for several elderly aunts in Scotland.
At the assisted-care residence where she’s at risk of being turfed out because she can no longer operate a kettle, Anne—who is 83 and suffering from dementia—has been taken under the protective wing of her neighbour, Maureen. Despite being petulant with her own family, Maureen is borderline obsequious with Anne, a woman who “said things that made you feel her life had been quite complete.”
Anne’s dementia is partly strategic: it enhances the sense of mystery about her but also gives us clues to that mystery by acting as a kind of truth serum. Central to the latter is her great love, Harry, a war hero who revived Anne’s interest in photography before he vanished in the early 1960s. (The novel’s title refers to the annual lights festival in Blackpool, the seaside English town where the couple trysted.) Still, there are hints that Harry may not have been as perfect as Anne claims. Why, for instance, was he never a father to Alice, the child he and Anne had together?
Anne and Alice’s own relationship is fraught, Anne disdaining her daughter’s pragmatic, literal nature. It was in Alice’s son, Luke, that Anne found a kindred spirit, a boy she ensured was “in touch with beautiful ideas” by feeding him books and art. The devotion is mutual. For Luke, Anne is “the person who once revealed to him a world beyond the obvious.”
Now 29, Luke is a captain with the same British regiment his father was serving with when he was killed in Northern Ireland before Luke was born. It strikes us at first as confounding that Luke’s need to live up to the image of a father he never met would trump insights gleaned from a “fountain of individuality”—his beloved Gran. But Luke, we learn, found a corollary for Anne’s quest for artistic “truth” in his own moral idealism, an idealism that lead him first to Iraq and now to Afghanistan, where he witnesses the painful coming apart of his one-time mentor, Major Scullion. There are, O’Hagan suggests though these parallel narratives and personal unravellings, many ways to break a person down; the surest, however, is loss.
As masterfully as O’Hagan shifts between worlds, it’s admittedly harder to leave his super-charged battlefield, where troops dodge sniper fire while hotly debating the difference between Death Metal and Thrash Metal. Few authors have depicted the perilous seduction of military life with such force and clarity.
Anne, like Watkins, is portrayed as a victim of her era’s gender expectations. True as that may be, O’Hagan’s approach occasionally comes off as a worshipful regard for the creative sensibility: the title of Artist seems to surround Anne like an aura. One of the things that originally brought Luke and Scullion close, similarly, is their love of literature, a fact that seems intended to elevate them in our eyes; make them feel, perhaps, less expendable.
This is, however, a minor paradox in a novel that consistently exploits major paradoxes with intelligence and humanity.
—Emily Donaldson (www.emilydonaldson.com) is a freelance critic and editor