Friday, July 17, 2015

"The Illuminations," by Andrew O'Hagan

Why have I never heard of the author Andrew O’Hagan before? Not only is he a well known (although, as I said, not by me…), prize-winning author of four novels and two nonfiction books in the UK, but he is also an editor of the London Review, which I have sporadically subscribed to and read over the years. I just read his most recent novel, “The Illuminations” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), which was a revelation. The novel’s very original premise and structure is based on the close relationship between Anne Quirk, formerly a gifted and somewhat well known photographer, and her grandson Luke, who is an officer in the British army based in Afghanistan. Anne is failing mentally, and lives in a sort of retirement home. There are various intimations about her past life that we don’t exactly figure out the significance of until fairly late in the novel. Suffice it to say that she had one great love, Henry, had a daughter Alice by him, and Alice, although she felt neglected by Anne, is her dutiful daughter and Luke’s loving mother. Luke feels that his grandmother Anne is the one who taught him about life, art, seeing things clearly, and being perceptive about life. He is very loyal to her, and their relationship is important to both of them, and touching to observe. Towards the end of the novel, Luke honors Anne’s desire to go back to Blackpool, where most of her relationship with Henry had taken place and where she has not been for many years; he takes her there and finds her old friends there. Most of the novel goes back and forth between Anne’s current life – and allusions to her past life – on the one hand, and Luke’s sometimes horrific and traumatic experiences in Afghanistan, on the other. Their two stories come together at the end of the novel during the trip to Blackpool. These two stories seem and are very different, but the indirect connection (besides these two characters’ close relationship) is that both characters have been adventurous and unafraid, yet have suffered. I sometimes had trouble reading the Afghanistan chapters, but that was my failing, not the author’s. In any case, this is an unusual novel, well written, and challenging in the sense of making the reader think about what is important in life (but not in a didactic way). I am very pleased to have “discovered” this new – to me – author, and will look for more of his novels.
Site Meter