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