'The Illuminations', by Andrew O'Hagan - Review

By Kelly, Stuart | The Spectator, February 21, 2015 | Go to article overview

'The Illuminations', by Andrew O'Hagan - Review


Kelly, Stuart, The Spectator


The Illuminations Andrew O'Hagan

Faber, pp.294, £17.99, ISBN: 9780571273645

The illuminations of Andrew O'Hagan's fifth novel are both metaphysical and mundane. In the course of its taut plot, they encompass Blackpool's elaborate decorations and a moment of understanding between a grandmother and grandson; epiphanies about the nature of masculinity picked out by the tracer fire and explosions in Afghanistan; and a photograph of an everyday sink linked to the aesthetic realisation that 'colour is light on fire'.

O'Hagan has rightly been praised as a prose stylist, and his grasp of cadence and rhythm is every bit as evident here as before; but what is more impressive is O'Hagan as strenuous moralist. A book which addresses the problems of an aging population, gaming technology as army recruitment, broken relationships between couples and generations, the ethics of foreign military intervention and even a nod to the arguments of the independence referendum might be accused of substituting the merely contemporary for the enduringly relevant, but they are choreographed with such graciousness that this never feels like a feature piece or opinion column inflated into a novel.

Anne Quirk is an old woman living in sheltered accommodation in Saltcoats, Scotland. Although the residents, particularly her kindly neighbour Maureen, know little about her past as a pioneering photographer, they do realise that she is gradually succumbing to dementia. Luke, her grandson, left university to go into the army, partly to search for the kind of man he hoped his father, who died serving in Northern Ireland, had been.

The clear-sightedness of O'Hagan's approach to both characters yields affecting results: dementia is described not as 'losing' a person, but ironically as a younger version of that person coming back. Not every squaddie thinks Browning is just a kind of firearm. …

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