A US Marine passes through an Afghan poppy field

Andrew O'Hagan's The Illuminations captures the beauty and harshness of modern life

This perceptive novel moves between Scotland and Afghanistan
January 22, 2015


The Illuminations, by Andrew O'Hagan (Faber & Faber, £17.99)

Early in Andrew O’Hagan’s fifth novel, The Illuminations, a woman named Maureen is studying a photograph of her neighbour’s long-deceased husband. Both women live in an assisted living housing complex in Scotland. The elderly residents of Saltcoats have their own separate flats, but know that once they can no longer use a kettle, they will be moved to a nursing home. Maureen’s neighbour, Anne, is rapidly reaching that point; not only is she growing increasingly forgetful but she is also convinced that her ceramic rabbit needs feeding.

In the photo that has attracted Maureen’s attention, Anne’s husband Harry “was smoking a pipe and looking down at a model aeroplane in his hands. His smile was a private note to Anne. They might have been hiding out from the world.” Maureen “had never been with a man with that kind of patience. The longer she looked at the photographs the more she could tell Harry was a generous person who had wanted to bring out Anne’s intelligence.”

As the story progresses, Maureen’s judgement turns out to have been only partly true of Harry, but entirely descriptive of O’Hagan. The Illuminations is immensely generous and wholly committed to conveying the complex intelligence of its large and varied cast of characters. The men and women we meet in these pages are as full of contradictions, and as mysterious to others—and to themselves—as real human beings. Maureen, for example, spends much of the book bemoaning the fact that her three grown children rarely telephone or come to see her. Her complaints are heartfelt, but when at last her daughter and one of her sons visit, we discover that her relations with them are contentious and resentful—and she can hardly wait to be rid of their noisy and insistent demands: “For years her children had witnessed it on their mother’s face, how put-upon she felt by them, how aggressed by their basic wishes. They tried to understand it. Family life, to her, was a complication best left to television. She liked greeting cards because she could buy them on her own and send them on her own, and she despatched all responsibility when she posted those cards.”

Like Maureen, Anne has a vexed relationship with her daughter, but she is deeply devoted to her grandson, Luke. When she was a young woman, Anne was an accomplished documentary photographer, and she had recognised and encouraged her grandson’s artistic sensibility.

“An interest in ‘seeing things,’ as Anne called it, was what had made them close. At her flat in Glasgow, when he was young, she set up what she called his ‘little conchological cabinet’—a term out of Charles Dickens, she told him—which was where he kept shells he’d found and bits of broken plate from the sea. The glass cabinet described their shared interest in the gathering of facts, their attempt to know life not only by our mistakes but by artistic ordering.”

The second section of the novel takes a surprising—and daring—turn and follows Luke to Afghanistan, where he has been deployed as a captain with the 1st Royal Western Fusiliers. The brutal conditions of warfare—heat and dust, the perpetual fear of being ambushed by the Taliban—are exacerbated by the fact that Luke’s squad is under the leadership of Major Scullion, a seasoned soldier whose grip on reality is deteriorating as worrisomely as Anne’s—with disastrous consequences. From this point on, the narrative tracks back and forth between the mountains of Helmand Province and the assisted living facility in Saltcoats. The scope of the novel widens, and O’Hagan’s larger design becomes clear. The novel is at once dramatically plotted and leisurely enough to sustain a series of meditations on consciousness, memory, loyalty, identity, friendship, love and history.

O’Hagan knows both the political and domestic territory well. He has reported from Afghanistan and one trenchant and moving essay, published in the London Review of Books, focused on the fate of children in that embattled country. His first book was The Missing, a sensitive non-fiction account of the fate of disappeared people.

In this novel, though they are a world apart, both the soldiers and elderly residents establish—and depend on—a community. The soldiers get high on potent Afghan cannabis, talk about rock and roll, and imagine that they are living inside a real-life video game: “Younger soldiers often thought they knew the battleground; they saw graphics, screens, solid cover and fuck-off guns you could swap. It wasn’t all they saw, but it was part of their understanding. They saw cheats and levels, badass motherfuckers, kill death ratios, and the kinds of marksmen who jump up after they’re dead. Luke knew they all struggled, from time to time, to find the British army as interesting as its international gaming equivalent.”

At Saltcoats, the women meet weekly to exchange memories: “Anne’s problem was the Friday meeting always made her think of memory rather than remember. She thought sketchily or vividly of the artists she had loved and supposed that was kind of remembering, but it was what they said, actually, the material and the ideas, the fact that they took an interest in making things permanent, this was the kind of thing that flooded Anne’s mind on a Friday.” She adds: “‘There was a woman called Louise... Don’t ask me what else she was called. She made spiders.’”

What’s most striking is the ease with which the characters, in both places, drift back and forth between the present and the past. In Afghanistan, Major Scullion retreats from the horrors around him into the terrors of the past: “As the vehicle bumped along and then rejoined Highway 611, he recalled that he’d once imagined that the world could be put right and made whole…He loved the metaphysics of the new wars, where one spoke of freedom, of delivering security, but as he put down his head and meshed his trembling fingers, he pictured slain Bosnians by a shopping precinct in Srebrenica. He saw corpses in burnt-out cars on the Basra Road and rebel soldiers lying dead by a runway north of Freetown, their eyes open to democracy.” Back in Scotland, Anne is also simultaneously inhabiting the present and the past she shared with Harry: “Anne was looking at the light coming off the teaspoons. It was a familiar process for her, looking at objects and the way the light picked them out and changed them. Her mind fell back to when she first met him. He was giving a talk about documentary photography and capturing life on the street. He spoke at the Masons’ Hall not far from the tower and his cheeks were flushed as he stood on the stage. You were a lovely speaker. You had the audience in the palm of your hand for the best part of two hours.”

Throughout the book, the characterisations are enriched—and the narrative made resonant and plausible—by O’Hagan’s gift for observation and his use of specific detail. In a vehicle with his troops, who are listening to a CD of a band called Brain Drill, “Scullion looked round when the music filled the car and he grinned the grin of a middle-aged man finding freedom again in the sound of a metal band at full pelt.” Luke’s conversations with his ill grandmother range back to a talk they had, long in the past, about a Pablo Picasso painting: “He knew as she reached for the words that she was uncovering the old ground of their sympathy. She’d used the example to him way back in the past—of how some people looked at Guernica and admired its form but couldn’t understand why it couldn’t just be an aerial photograph. But form told its own story, she used to say. And now she was struggling to say it again as the road vanished behind them.”

The precision of O’Hagan’s details enables him to evoke the experience of being in a wide range of settings. In the Afghan countryside the “carnations on tall stalks were straining past the sun and an old lady came up to a stationary WMIK with a helmet full of figs. She tapped the wheel of the vehicle and he saw the helmet was stamped ‘Twentynine Palms, CA.’ She was selling the figs and her smile seemed more like a knot.” And in the retirement community in Saltcoats: “Each flat had a ledge by the front door, like a low concrete table, which the resident would crowd with ornaments. Flat 21 had a collection of porcelain dogs with sad eyes, jowly faces and hanging ears. Maureen’s daughter once said it was a black hold of empathy. Flat 20 had a host of fairies hopping about for eternity on gossamer wings. ‘Life is much more interesting if it scarcely exists,’ said their surprised little faces, their slender hands.”

If the book’s final chapters are less than fully satisfying, it’s not because they are unconvincing, or even unmoving, but rather because they are reminiscent of the many books that have appeared lately in which a novel’s resolution depends on the revelation of long-buried family secrets. But ultimately that sense of familiarity hardly matters, given the many pleasures, the graceful writing and the intelligent and perceptive reflections that the work provides.

Not far into the novel, Luke recalls a conversation with his grandmother about the importance of paying attention and of closely observing the world. “That’s life,” says Anne. “If you weren’t looking, you missed it. That’s all I know.”

The Illuminations misses nothing, and we can be grateful for the energy and the intelligence with which O’Hagan has presented us with the complexity of human consciousness, and has managed to convey both the beauty and the harshness of the world in which his characters—and his readers—live.