Just as a careful reading of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina will (among other things, admittedly) yield the recipe for raspberry cognac jam, Andrew O’Hagan’s fifth novel – and, along with the exquisitely melancholic Be Near Me of 2006, his best – comes embedded with practical, real world information: in this instance, old-school darkroom tips. One character, for example, outlines the process of photographic “masking”:
Masking is a technique whereby you hold back some of the light from one or two areas by placing a mask on the printing paper. It will affect the image you see and the reality you observe.
This could also stand as a description of the author’s process: a foregrounding of certain details that disguises withholding elsewhere.
O’Hagan denies full disclosure in an epic manner – iceberg-sized chunks of narrative calve in the final pages of the book, and they sail into view just in time to oblige readers to entirely reconfigure the mental landscape they had spent the past 300 pages assembling.
The result is a fiction that starts out as a Hemingwayan meditation on men and war, and then turns into something else altogether: a story about women and art, and the limits of art.
We are, it argues, creatures shaped before we even have selves to shape, by the tales of those – parents and grandparents, lovers and spouses – who preceded us, or were drawn to us. What desire, fear, loneliness, bitterness, love, shame or regret life has bred in their bones becomes part of our inheritance.
Our lives, in other words, are mostly founded on the biographical elisions and determined auto-editing of others. We are made out of stories told by unreliable narrators as much as by recombinant strands of DNA.
While the author’s insights are remorseless and sometimes distressing, he is unfailingly tender in their application. The Illuminations opens in the near-present, in an undistinguished retirement community in a seaside town on the west coast of Scotland, where a rather glamorous old lady is slowly losing her mind. Anne Quirk is a sweet and intelligent woman who was once a photographer of note and is now unofficially minded by her crimped and sour neighbour, Maureen. When Maureen discovers Anne attempting to feed tinned tomato soup to a ceramic rabbit in the middle of the night, it seems her time at Lochranza Court is coming to a close.
In the time it takes for Anne’s growing confusion to become public knowledge and so cause for eviction to a nursing home, readers are taken somewhere else completely. Anne’s grandson Luke, raised on other’s accounts of valour in conflict (his father, Sean, a soldier, was killed while on tour in Northern Ireland) has joined the Royal Western Fusiliers and been sent to Afghanistan.
While he is a bookish and thoughtful man, devoted to his grandmother and drawn to her creative past, the desire to do some good in the world beyond the abstractions of literature and art has led him to Helmand province and turned him into a splendid machine with a taste for hash and high kill ratios:
Out there, staring into the mountains, it occurred to him that he had travelled far from his old resources, far from Anne Quirk and her mysterious belief that truth and silence can conquer everything. Was she even real in herself, he asked. Or was she just another of life’s compelling hopes?
If in the early pages of the book we are too trapped inside Anne’s scattered memories, there is a bracing clarity to those sections devoted to Afghanistan. O’Hagan is a superb anthropologist of the ethos, habits and richly scatological idiolect of those working-class boys from Scotland and Ireland who make up much of the lower ranks of the Fusiliers. They smoke pot and abuse one another, and play first-person shooter games whose digitised violence is infinitely more thrilling than the periods
of enforced idleness demanded by the British Army in the real world.
Luke has come to love the boys under his command. But he has come to suspect his superior officer, Scullion, a rare combination of career soldier and educated man, of cracking under years of pressure. His failure to adequately stand up to the man leads the platoon into a trap, a sudden eruption of violence whose implications will follow officers all the way back to Britain and civilian life.
When Luke returns to Anne it is as a young person shaken out of his conviction that the post-2001 conflict was based on justice and decency. His decision to take her on a brief trip to her old stamping ground of Blackpool – really a means of getting her away while Maureen and his mother, Alice, clear the flat – begins as an act of filial kindness and ends in the kind of revelations that finally explain “the people he loved”:
All his life his family had been moving, perhaps invisibly, perhaps unknowingly, around this terrible event that happened years ago and that was never mentioned. His hand shook as he reached for the pint, as if this secret about Anne had suddenly recast the story of his childhood and his mother’s childhood too, changing everything.
It’s probably an error to press too hard on such plot resolutions – even those as monumental as Anne’s – when the true pleasures of The Illuminations lie at the level of the sentence. It will surprise no one familiar with the writer, whether as an essayist or novelist, that his prose is at once sharp and mellifluous.
What continues to astonish, however, is how adroit he is at capturing those tiny shifts, slippages, paradoxes and evasions in our thoughts and feelings – the psychological dark matter that makes up so much of our interior lives. AF
Faber, 350pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 31, 2015 as "Andrew O’Hagan, The Illuminations". Subscribe here.