The Illuminations
Andrew O'Hagan
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The Illuminations
Andrew O'Hagan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
304 pages
March 2015
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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What might initially seem depressing from a less talented writer becomes something honest and magical in Andrew O'Hagan's The Illuminations. Through the eyes of Luke Campbell, a young Scottish soldier, we see up close and personal the results of the specific kinds of horrors of war. Through Luke’s grandmother, Anne Quirk, we see the gentle ravages of senile dementia. Spinning a dark literary metaphor for survival, O’Hagan’s gift for poetic description is on considerable display as he tunnels into Anne's world; at eighty-two, she lives in a sheltered housing complex called Lochranza Court in Saltcoat, Scotland. Looked after by Maureen, the youngest resident in the complex, Anne tells of an old bathing pool and the Marine Theatre in Glasgow, and where people in Blackpool were waiting for money--just one more piece in a life that doesn’t really fit together.

We also learn about a man called Harry Blake, whose divided nature dominated Anne’s life over the years. Anne obviously traveled, living the glamorous life of a photographer, yet as she gradually fades away, Anne tells Maureen about Harry’s war-time exploits, her life in Canada and New York, and the old aunts she looked after before she went to live in Blackpool. Suddenly it is 1981 again, and Anne is in Glasgow, telling Maureen about the days of Sean with their bags of chips and their nights at the Apollo. Sean was Luke’s father, who believed “in all sorts of things” for Ireland.

Anne might be forever haunted by distorted images of her past, but with Luke she feels most connected. Anne’s been trying to keep up with Luke, who has recently joined the Royal Western Fusiliers and gone to fight in Afghanistan. Ostensibly in charge of his section but also reporting to Major Charlie Scullion, a beaten-down, grizzled, twenty-year war veteran, Luke and his mates, Privates Flannigan, Dooley, and Lennox, try to hold onto a semblance order as the parched and ruined Afghan desert surrounds them: “this heat inside the heat.” With the constant danger of a heavily armed ambush by unknown enemy forces, the men relieve stress by smoking joints and teaching the Afghan squaddies how to play air guitar. Luke’s soldiers must have nerves of steel and a willingness to expose themselves to constant danger and tension.

Here in the midst of battle, we learn much about Luke’s relationship with his grandmother and how Anne’s quest has long since become a part of who he is himself. Luke is like her, but this life in the Afghan desert shooting a rifle or riding a tank isn’t the life Anne wants for him. Luke has traveled far from Anne and her mysterious belief “that truth and silence can conquer everything.” Thrust into a situation where the heat of battle makes him question everything, Luke finds himself even more drawn to his grandmother, a woman with knowledge, secrets, and “a gentle habit of helping you up your game.”

O'Hagan combines Anne’s “slow-motion world hinted at in summers and new lipstick and the Pleasure Beach” and Blackpool, where she once took photos that were lost along the way, with Luke’s as a reckoning with an unresolved past occurs at Anne’s elderly neighbor’s apartment in Lochranza Court and in the deserts of Afghanistan, where Major Scullion has a serious lapse of judgment for the first time, abandoning his boys to danger. From the brotherhood and horror to his responsibility and guilt over Charlie Scullion, Luke posits the notions of choice and how our search for freewill is perhaps just an illusion.

Thanks to her dementia and her need for a temporary caretaker, Anne is welcomed by Maureen and Maureen’s children, a dysfunctional stew of agitated and accomplished siblings. Anne‘s daughter Alice gives Maureen a much appreciated insight into Anne’s past and to her immutable connection to her grandson. While undervalued Alice tells Maureen that theirs is a “difficult relationship," a part of Anne’s life is always off-limits. Anne’s journey is punctuated by memories of her intertwining life over the previous fifty years. Despite the betrayals and resentments, Anne seems to have done alright for herself--as has Luke, who has inadvertently become the recipient of Anne’s hero worship of Harry.

Told through the eyes of Luke, Anne, and Maureen, the vantage shifts from one to the other as family secrets and private pains are revealed through their alternating ruminations. As the dust and smoke from the last of the mortars dissipates and floats away toward sparse clouds, Luke’s experiences in Afghanistan are both heart-wrenching and riveting. So are Anne’s shattered, bifurcated memories of Blackpool where the illuminations shine strong, where the orange horizon reflects the crowds that quickly gather on the Blackpool Promenade, and where kids come to dance with their glow-sticks and their colored windmills all made of light.

Though the novel at times offers little hope or joy, only the tedium of hard times, O’Hagan’s message remains life-affirming, perpetuated by Luke, who doubts the strength and the consistency of men. Luke’s journey is coming to see his grandmother’s “slow-bungling heartache,” this woman with an “eerie special power” whom he has loved all his life and whose spirit has survived in a series of trials that, until now, he has never known.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2015

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