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The Illuminations: A Novel by Andrew O'Hagan
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The Illuminations: A Novel

by Andrew O'Hagan

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I never know what to say about books I really love. Everything sounds so repetitive -- the writing was beautiful, the characters felt real, the themes resonated. It's all true, but it sounds trite. For me, this was the right book at the right time, and I am grateful to have read it when I did. ( )
  gayla.bassham | Nov 7, 2016 |
In Andrew O’Hagan’s poignant novel The Illuminations, Anne Quirk’s mind is slowly unraveling. Anne, in her eighties, is living in a sheltered housing development in Saltcoats, North Ayrshire in Scotland, closely watched over by her sometimes meddlesome but well-meaning neighbour Maureen, and, more distantly, her daughter Alice. Sadly Anne’s time at Lochranza Court is coming to an end: it’s becoming clear to those around her that she’s declining, losing her grip on the present and no longer capable of living semi-independently. In the meantime, her grandson Luke, a captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers, is completing a tour of duty in Afghanistan. When his mission goes horribly wrong, Luke returns home and tries to forget the tragic events he witnessed along with his own fatal error in judgment that contributed to the mission’s disastrous conclusion. Luke and Anne have a bond, one that goes beyond simple mutual affection engendered by common blood: Anne passed her love of the visual arts to Luke. In her youth, Anne was a documentary photographer whose work, had it become widely known, would have likely led to an international career and widespread acclaim. But instead of pursuing her passion, she allowed a man’s betrayal to crush her spirit. At the crux of her memories is Harry, the man who taught her the art of photography and broke her heart. Her memories are fixated on Blackpool, the English resort town famous for its “illuminations,” an annual lights festival, where Anne kept a studio in a bedsit and where she carried on her affair with Harry, until he stopped meeting her. When the time comes for his grandmother to be moved into a nursing home, Luke takes Anne to Blackpool, where she can revisit her past with dignity, and Luke can redouble his efforts to forget. The Illuminations, a profoundly human novel that often triggers an emotional response, is also one that never descends into sentiment. O’Hagan, a disciplined fiction writer and journalist, knows how to move a story forward. His exploration of memory, loss and family secrets is wise and moving. ( )
  icolford | May 24, 2016 |
Curiously, this book raises many questions similar to those of the last one I read (Little Bastards in Springtime, also published in 2015, and with a cover image that uses the same form). It deals with the stories that we tell ourselves about war and about living our lives.
The contemporary war in this story is the British forces in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. (It was the Bosnian civil war in Little Bastards.) It’s complicated by a separate story in which a woman is losing her memories of her husband in the second world war. Both lines of this novel involve a lot of story-telling.
Luke (a Scot) joined the British Army to follow his father who was killed in Ireland, a bit of complicated story telling in itself. He leads a company into an Afghan skirmish that goes badly. He no longer buys the stories (even the cynical ones the soldiers tell themselves), although he does play along with his mates when he meets them later – perhaps in order not to weaken their own faith.
Anne’s story is more complicated still. A Canadian photographer who relocated to New York where she trained with Stieglitz, then relocated to England following World War 2, she forms a relationship with a photographer in Blackpool before moving to live in Scotland. She is inspired creatively by him, and has a relationship that leads to a child. Later we find out that the stories he has told her, and that she has told her family and perhaps believes herself, are not entirely true. But by the time of the novel, she is slipping into Alzheimer’s disease, confuses the past and the present, and seems happy to believe the stories that she has been telling everyone. To her, they are the reality, and happier than the life she has led.
The two stories come together when Luke, Anne’s grandson, takes her to Blackpool, finds out the reality, and concludes that Anne can live the rest of her life happily in her idealized fantasy. He seems to accept that the stories in his own life might be okay too, if they help people cope.
In spite of the interesting themes, and the polished prose in this novel, it didn’t do much for me. I found it too removed and I never felt drawn to the story or the characters. There is a distant, detached tone, and the story itself is just not very interesting. This may just be an idiosyncratic response, because I know the book is well regarded, and was nominated for a Booker prize. There are many good things about the book – O’Hagen has some poetic, precise descriptive language that is quite evocative. And he has a facility for shifting viewpoints around a scene, sometimes showing how two or three people see it within a single paragraph. His descriptions of Luke’s crew in the heat of Afghanistan, not sure who to trust, not knowing what’s ahead, and the sudden reaction when things go wrong, give what seem to be a very realistic picture of a military crew.
But all of this, somehow, leaves me unengaged. When I compare it to the reaction I had to Little Bastards, it lacks the emotional response that Jevrem’s story drew out. Possibly young Jevrem is just a more relatable character than the older introspective Luke. And Anne is barely there except as a character that other people relate to, and most of her past seems absent. Perhaps this is the challenge of writing about a character whose past is evaporating.
Overall, I found this novel unsatisfying, and I found myself eager to get through it. ( )
  rab1953 | May 10, 2016 |
Started this book a couple of days back and am enjoying the way the writer is linking two such different worlds. Good to read a contemporary novel that recognises another of the little wars UK has been involved in of late. You're switching between the war in Afghanistan and Scotland were the officer's grandma is beginning to lose her memory. From it is constructed her life as a photographer. ( )
  adrianburke | Apr 24, 2016 |
This is a book about memories - real ones and false ones. It follows two main characters - Anne Quirk, an elderly woman living in sheltered housing and suffering from Alzheimer's, and her grandson, Luke, an army captain serving in Afghanistan. The novel is full of clever metaphors and illusions to the past and to people's memories and histories, not least the illuminations themselves - Blackpool's - and the seaside town itself plays a major role.
In addition, Anne's past as a talented photographer is constantly alluded to and shows the powerful role that photographs play in our memories.
For most of the book, O'Hagan alternates between chapters featuring Anne's life in her sheltered housing block and the very much grittier sections featuring Luke's experiences in Afghanistan. What shines through is the author's wholehearted sympathy for all his characters. ( )
  stephengoldenberg | Apr 6, 2016 |
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O’Hagan’s style is scrupulous. The book reads as spare, despite his astonishing ability to create a cast of rounded, credible voices, from earnest care-home workers to rough young squaddies..The novel’s structure is also a testament to his skill. The Illuminations could easily feel loose, given its subject and its changes in perspective and setting, but O’Hagan keeps the story clearly visible by building it in short sections... The light might be artificial and incomplete, but it shows us the pieces of what we have, and what we can make from them. Like Virginia Woolf’s lighthouse beam sweeping across the dark bay, O’Hagan’s illuminations are searing.
 
O’Hagan’s ability to sum up a life in the most poignant, matter-of-fact way is reminiscent of Kipling, too. Of Anne he writes: “She left herself behind in a room, and that way survived her own potential, until her mind began to fray.” That idea of surviving one’s own potential is one of the book’s gloomier burdens.

It’s a measure of O’Hagan’s compassion that after balancing these stories of war and family – braving the battlefield and braving the passing of time – the ultimate note is hopeful and almost gentle, of something that seems real and vital.
 
The Illuminations is a book at once both tender and ambitious. In the writing of it, O’Hagan has cast a shimmering light on love and memory, life and loss and on the secrets we keep from those closest to us, sometimes even from ourselves.
 
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Epigraph
'Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.' Dorothea Lange
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To Karl Miller
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Snow was falling past the window and in her sleep she pictured a small girl and her father in a railway carriage.
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amazon ca Product Description
A compelling new novel by two-time Booker finalist and internationally acclaimed author Andrew O'Hagan. For readers of Colm Toibin, Ian McEwan, Alan Hollinghurst and David Mitchell.
How much do we keep from the people we love? Why is the truth so often buried in secrets? Can we learn from the past or must we forget it? The Illuminations, Andrew O'Hagan's fifth work of fiction, is a powerful, nuanced and deeply affecting novel about love and memory, about modern war and the complications of fact.
Standing one evening at the window of her house by the sea, Anne Quirk sees a rabbit disappearing in the snow. Nobody remembers her now, but this elderly woman was in her youth an artistic pioneer, a creator of groundbreaking documentary photographs. Her beloved grandson, Luke, now a captain in the British army is on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. When his mission goes horribly wrong, he ultimately comes face to face with questions of loyalty and moral responsibility that will continue to haunt him. Once Luke returns home to Scotland, Anne's secret story begins to emerge, along with his, and they set out for an old guest house in Blackpool where she once kept a room. There they witness the annual illuminations--the dazzling artificial lights that brighten the seaside resort town as the season turns to winter. The Illuminations is a beautiful and highly charged novel that reveals, among other things, that no matter how we look at it, there is no such thing as an ordinary life.
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