Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

How We Live Now: In Love, in War and in Our Imagination

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

How We Live Now: In Love, in War and in Our Imagination

Article excerpt


THE ILLUMINATIONS by Andrew O'Hagan (Faber, PS17.99) IT IS the purpose of fiction both to distract us from the troublesome business of living and to show us ourselves as we are, as we hope to be -- or, sometimes, as we wish we were not. Andrew O'Hagan's novels, Our Fathers (1999) and Be Near Me (2006), scrutinise the society of our times through the magnifying lens of family stories set in Glasgow, Ayrshire, Blackpool, Oxford and, in the latest volume of this loosely connected trilogy, Afghanistan.

O'Hagan is equally interested in the wounds and fractures of family life and the role of the individual within society. He is concerned with the relationship between art and morality, and the nature of reality. His project in these novels has been to explore the fault lines in our great social institutions: politics, religion and, in this latest volume, the Army.

The protagonists of Our Fathers and Be Near Me are sensitive, bookish young men with emotionally detached mothers and fathers absent through death or alcoholism. Luke Campbell, the 29-year-old army officer at the heart of The Illuminations, continues the pattern. Fatherless (his soldier father was killed by an IRA bomb when Luke was five), with a taste for the poetry of Wallace Stevens, he has a constrained relationship with his mother, Alice; his closest attachment is to his grandmother, Anne, once a talented photographer.

Anne is an enigma both to her family and, increasingly, to herself. Now 82, she is exhibiting early signs of dementia. A neighbour, Maureen, is impressed by the signs of an exotic past evident in her possessions: "A person with taste always has a story," Maureen thinks, and hints of Anne's story are tantalisingly revealed in her fragmentary conversation and in her suitcases full of old photographs.

Anne's grandson, Luke, with whom, when he was a child, she discussed art and books, giving him "the world not as it was but as it might be", is serving in Afghanistan. …

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