In its title alone, Andrew O’Hagan’s fifth novel packs in a lot. The Illuminations refers to the famous Blackpool lights, to tracer fire over Helmand and to the moments of lucidity experienced amid senile dementia. In its brutal and compelling portrayal of war in Afghanistan, the book attempts to say something important about the contradictory impulses that have embroiled Britain in a series of foreign conflicts. Yet it is also a conventional, sometimes ‘couthy’, as they say in Scotland, domestic drama driven by a family secret.
The clash of tones is pronounced. To paraphrase one of the main characters, talking about Picasso’s Guernica, ‘form tells its own story’. If the author is teasing the reader to work out how his parallel realities will meet, he also opens up the prospect that they won’t and can’t, as so many soldiers have found to their cost on returning to civilian life.
O’Hagan begins his tale close to his geographical roots. In an Ayrshire seaside town, octogenarian Anne Quirk is suffering from dementia. She struggles to cope with basic daily activities and is spared eviction from the sheltered accommodation where she lives only by the help of her neighbour, Maureen, and the blind eye of the kindly warden.
But while Anne is losing control of the present, her past returns to her in vivid flashes, from her childhood in Canada and life as a documentary photographer to memories shrouded in mystery of Harry, her artistic mentor and lover. Anne is distant from her pragmatic daughter, a distance that her illness has done nothing to close. Instead, she feels a special bond with her grandson, Luke, a captain in the British Army posted to Afghanistan.
Luke returns her love. But he fears that army life has taken him a long way from the idealistic child who spent hours talking about art and walking the shoreline with his grandmother. Engaged in a supposedly humanitarian mission to deliver equipment for a power plant, he is increasingly disillusioned with a war that he has grown to believe is ‘dirty as fuck’.
Nor is he the only soldier in crisis. His commanding officer, Major Scullion – a sort of Northern Irish Kurtz via Graham Greene – is cracking under the pressure of thirty years of service in Belfast, Bosnia and Iraq, along with the collapse of his marriage (‘Domestic life is harsher than Stalingrad,’ he observes self-pityingly, one of several great aphorisms in the book). All the ingredients are present for a bloody disaster, which duly arrives. After Luke returns home, the final section of the novel builds towards the revelation of the secret at the centre of his grandmother’s life, played out in the setting of modern-day Blackpool.
The Illuminations borrows its epigraph from the American photojournalist Dorothea Lange: ‘Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.’ It might equally have referenced T S Eliot: ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality.’
Anne’s manipulation of images in the darkroom is not the only attempt to tame unruly experience by isolating it and freezing it in time. In this sense, the novel works as a set of variations on the themes of self-invention and selective memory. Parents and children, husbands and wives, they are all at it. When two of Luke’s platoon return from their tour with tattoos reading ‘Free Afghanistan’, he wonders whether ‘everything in life was about the image you were left with. Nothing might change on the ground but the movie could be made and the pics could whizz into cyberspace. The turbines at Kajaki would never leave their wrappings but these young men would carry these pictures to their graves.’ One soldier’s coping mechanism is a nation’s propaganda.
Yet, ultimately, the book is broadly forgiving of the tendency to play fast and loose with memory. How could it not be? A novelist knows better than anyone that we are all storytelling creatures, natural editors.
If there are moments where O’Hagan overplays his hand in the quest for significance (does the book’s big reveal really need to be prefaced by the words ‘He knew it was monumental’?), The Illuminations makes up for this with the richness of its detail. It has the authentic warp and weft of real life and the writer has a playwright’s ear for dialogue, silences and omissions as illuminating as the words themselves.