The Illuminations

IlluminationsThe Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan is the kind of book that makes me feel wholly unsophisticated as a reader. I could admire what O’Hagan is attempting to do and appreciate his fine wordsmithing, but I couldn’t find my way to any real enjoyment. As a reader, I just prefer good old-fashioned storytelling to writing that feels at times too much like an exercise in style.

The novel’s two central characters are the elderly Anne Quirk, a once-celebrated photographer now succumbing to dementia, and her grandson Luke, a British army captain stationed in Afghanistan. The early chapters alternate between Anne’s life in an independent living facility and Luke’s service in Afghanistan. Here, moving between these two entirely different environments. Eventually, when Luke returns to England, the two narratives merge, with occasional digressions into the minds of Anne’s neighbor, Luke’s mother and Anne’s daughter, one of Luke’s fellow officers, all of them trying to understand themselves and their relationships to others in the world.

The novel concerns itself greatly with family and with the tension between isolation and intimacy that comes with being in a family. Each person in the novel longs for connections with some (whether family, neighbors, or fellow soldiers) and resist connections with others–only a few, like Luke and Anne, share a mutual connection. For this reason, much of the novel has a melancholic and longing tone, with each person surrounded yet lost in his or her own world.

The writing is the novel’s greatest strength. The characters have distinct voices, and the conversation feels authentic, whether it’s among soldiers on a mission, old women in a rest home, or carousers in a pub. And the way the dialogue sometimes feels random and scattershot, with each person having his or her own conversation, sometimes without listening to the others, gibes well with the novel’s interest in isolation in a crowd.

But as much as I admired O’Hagan’s skill in writing and characterization (the neighbor, Maureen, is particularly well-done), I felt at a distance from this novel. The revelations near the end were not entirely unsurprising, but I was moved by a story involving a rabbit—and I suspect that bit will continue to reverberate in me as I mull over how it affected the characters’ other relationships.

This is the fourth book I’ve read for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel. At this point, I don’t have a strong opinion either way regarding whether it should end up on the shortlist. A lot will depend, of course, on my impressions of the other books, but I’m also curious as to how I’ll feel about this once I’ve gotten a little more distance.

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12 Responses to The Illuminations

  1. This one is on my pile – and I’ve been wondering if, like you, I could totally involve myself in it even though I was lucky enough to hear him read from it back in Feb. He was reading aloud, holding onto the lectern, going up and down on his toes the whole time matching the undulations in his speaking voice which was measured in pace, but full of pauses and emphases – reminiscent of Billy Connolly in a way I seem to remember. Maybe I should read it imagining him reading it.

  2. Anokatony says:

    Delete the previous.
    I was considering reading ‘The Illuminations, not any more.
    So far I’ve read four of the Booker longlist: Lila, A Spool of Blue Thread, The Green Road,and Satin Island. None of the four do I consider outstanding.

    • Teresa says:

      I absolutely adored Lila, but haven’t gotten to the others you mention. Satin Island looks like my kind of thing, so I’m looking forward to it. The other jurists seem to have similar views about the Enright that I have about this (fine but not outstanding), so I’m curious as to how those will compare.

  3. Jenny says:

    I wonder if I’d like it more than you did. I often love books whose style is a big part of the storytelling — though not *at the expense of* the storytelling. Nabokov, Ford Madox Ford, Calvino, Saramago, Saunders… they all use style and language *in order to* tell the story, not instead of.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t know–I’m skeptical. All the writers you mention because still offer a lot of story in the midst of the style. Here, the style is mostly just in the language. And if you strip away the style, there’s not much story left, aside from the untold story that’s revealed toward the end. Now that I think about it, Kate Atkinson covered similar ground in a much more compelling way in A God in Ruins, and that book would survive the excision of the big reveal at its end. I hadn’t really note Atkinson’s absence from the Booker list until now, but I thought Atkinson offered more than this did.

  4. >>As a reader, I just prefer good old-fashioned storytelling to writing that feels at times too much like an exercise in style.

    I so agree with this, and at the same time, there have been books that read like exercises in style to other people that I thought were magic. I very very VERY much felt this way about Housekeeping, but I know you love Marilynne Robinson.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s a good point. I think maybe books like this only feel like exercises in style when the style/story combination isn’t working for me. I’d never think of Housekeeping as an exercise in style because there’s so much going on with the characters. Then there are books like Dept of Speculation, which I loved even though the story isn’t much and relies on the storytelling style for its life.

  5. Janakay says:

    Thanks for the great review. I finished “The Illuminations” about a week ago and felt much the same way as you—beautiful writing and great style, but as a whole (and despite some great moments) the book left me strangely unmoved. I think the disparate plot strands never really meshed for me emotionally–it was almost as if O’Hagan graphed out two separate novels and linked them in a stylistically skillful but emotionally very artificial way. Contrary to some reviewers, I actually thought the segments set in Afghanistan were the most artificial–I felt as though the dialogue and supporting characters from this part of the novel were closely modeled on characters and dialogue from a hundred war movies we’ve all seen (in justice, perhaps this was O’Hagan’s point–all wars are alike). Despite my harsh criticisms, however, I didn’t feel that I had wasted my time in reading the book—-I love finding new (to me) writers and I’ll probably check out more of O’Hagan’s work at some point, as he’s a very good writer.
    So far, I’ve also read Enright’s “The Green Road,” which I thought started strong but faltered towards the end, as well as Tyler’s “Spool of Blue Thread.” What can I say about Tyler that hasn’t been said before? She’s a wonderful writer and deals with big themes in an unpretentious and emotionally satisfying way (she can also be very funny). “Spool” isn’t her best novel, but it’s still very, very good and just an all around great read. I’m also about halfway through Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life”. My judgment is still out on this one, but so far I’ve been unable to put it down!

    • Teresa says:

      You put it very well. And I’m finding that I like this even less the more I think about it. In theory, I liked the way the different sections have a different style and feeling to them, but I agree that they never quite come together. I also didn’t like the Afghanistan parts much, but I couldn’t work out how much of that was because I don’t like reading war scenes and how much was because it wasn’t well done.

      I haven’t gotten to Tyler or Enright yet. Oddly enough, I’ve only read one of Tyler’s books before now (Breathing Lessons). I didn’t think much of it, but it was almost 20 years ago, and I may have been too young to appreciate it. I keep wondering if I should give her another try, so I’m glad to get the chance now. I read A Little Life when it first came out and really disliked it, although I agree that it’s hard to put down! So far, my only sure contenders for the shortlist are Lila and A Brief History of Seven Killings.

  6. The writing here just grabbed me from the beginning. I thought that the differences in setting and expression was as incongruous and scripted as life can be depending upon the roles we assume, if that makes sense. I’ll write more later but this one surprised me in a really good way.

    • Teresa says:

      What you say makes sense. The differences didn’t bother me, except that I didn’t feel the meshing of storylines was effective. I think, though, this is a good case of how effective writing can be so much in the eye of the beholder. I thought this writing was good and can see why it would appeal to some readers, but it didn’t grab me the way Marilynne Robinson or Marlon James did.

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