The 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.