This perceptive novel moves between Scotland and Afghanistanby Francine Prose / January 22, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.”