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. Their paths eventually converge in Blackpool, a place to which Anne keeps trying to send postal orders — a sign of her decline or a clue to her past?
The sections set in Afghanistan are astonishing. O’Hagan’s depiction of the troops never rings false. There are, naturally, a fair few expletives as they complain about Terrys and Fundies to a soundtrack of death-metal references and old-style army banter (a sergeant with three stripes is a ‘Colgate’). The combination of naivety and cynicism seems accurate, and the camaraderie is echoed in the strange alliances in Saltcoats’s ‘assisted-living community’. The lilt of Maureen’s voice is equally compelling, and the difference between how humans speak and how bureaucracies communicate is part of the weft of themes throughout.
There is a kind of radical democracy about The Illuminations. Although Anne’s and Luke’s narratives form the major arc, the other characters are not merely a supporting cast. Some scenes are miniatures of comedy — Maureen is boastful about her family, for instance, except when they visit and she can’t stand them. It’s nice to find Luke meeting ‘Mark from Dalgarnock’, one of the principal characters in O’Hagan’s Be Near Me. That device, where characters from one novel appear in another, was the trademark of John Galt, the 19th-century Scottish author of Annals of the Parish and The Provost, who referred to his work as ‘theoretical histories’. There is more than a passing resemblance between Galt and O’Hagan. Both show how society and history shape individuals, and both do this in a lucid and ironic manner.
Looking through his grandmother’s photographs, Luke muses on how they are ‘so real and yet so imagined’. That might serve as O’Hagan’s manifesto.