There are many illuminations in Andrew O’Hagan’s ambitious light show of a novel. It’s set partly in Scotland and partly in Afghanistan. But in every part of the British Isles “the Illuminations” is a reference to Blackpool, that old proletarian seaside resort in northwest England that switches on its multicolored light show once a year. O’Hagan uses Blackpool as a stage set that becomes steadily more important in his drama. It’s at first a place where darkness and the forgettings of dementia obscure the old doings of his characters. But then, toward the end, the metaphorical lights switch on to reveal the relics of a touching, shocking past.
Lights are also felt by O’Hagan’s characters to mean a caring sort of love. “He carried a light for her all his life and proved she was easy to love” (a daughter remembering her father). For Anne Quirk, the central figure of the novel, a light is a proof of childhood happiness: her father “fixed up a small light-bulb in the doll’s house by her bed so that she could leave it on while she was sleeping,…it would stand there no matter what happened in the world.” Anne’s grandson Luke, just back from soldiering in Afghanistan, takes her to Blackpool to watch the Illuminations blaze up, but the red points of light slinging out over the sea are for Luke too much like Taliban tracer fire: his stomach lurches.
And Anne herself has worked with light all her life. Before family duty, tragedy, and then dementia took her away from her art, she was a photographer of great originality, a small spark in the flame of New York’s pre-war avant-garde who was on her way to becoming famous. The darkroom was her life, and the place where she clung to her lover Harry. After Harry departed life and died, Luke became the dearest person to her, and she tried all through his boyhood to enlighten him with “the photographer’s gift” of “giving shape” to all around you, and “knowing what’s behind appearances.” She “gave him lessons in how to aim above himself. She made him unusual….”
Anne Quirk, a figure inspired by the late Scottish-Canadian photographer Margaret Watkins, was born in a middle-class Glasgow family that soon emigrated to Canada. She found her vocation, her art, in New York, but before she could build on her talent she was ordered home to care for a nest of elderly maiden aunts in Glasgow. As the novel opens, she is herself an old lady, living in a “sheltered housing accommodation” colony on the Ayrshire coast. Her stage of dementia means that she is confused—what Scots call “a wee bit wandered”—but still just able to live an independent life with the support of her more “normal” neighbors in Lochranza Court. Anne mixes up living visitors with the long dead. She has a china rabbit that she insists on feeding, and in the first pages she is waking a friend next door and asking for a can opener. The rabbit wants his soup; “he’s not had a thing all day.”
The friend is Maureen, kind and tender to all except her own family, whom she likes to call ungrateful. (“You give them the best years of your life and then you get the sob stories, the hard-done-to stuff….” ) Like the other residents, she treasures and protects Anne; they are all fascinated by the jumbled fragments she has brought with her from a life of culture and “educated” sophistication.
But her dementia is gently deepening. At the “Memory Club,” a weekly session at which the Lochranza residents talk about their pasts—and are sized up for evidence of mental deterioration—Anne doesn’t do well. The others are baffled as she talks about a woman she knew who came from France and made rooms and spiders (she evidently means Louise Bourgeois). Later, Maureen and Jackie, the sympathetic woman who runs the place, reluctantly accept that Anne “can’t cope in the flat,” that she will have to be moved to a “home” where she will lose her independence. Maureen “didn’t know what she’d do if Anne ever left Lochranza Court. Maureen recalled when she saw her with a whisky in a crystal tumbler and thought, Good God, here’s Anne. A wee lady she is and she knows her own mind.”
Anne’s loss of memory, it will turn out, is in part protective. There are things she cannot bear to remember but cannot eliminate either, and many of her puzzling remarks make sense when they are seen to derive from “real” events or people or agonies long ago. “Anne was fading away and becoming known at the same time.” It’s hard to think of any handling of dementia in fiction more delicate and empathetic than O’Hagan’s in this novel, accompanied—as it must be—by an equally sensitive account of what dementia does to the sufferer’s relatives. Love often gagged by exasperation, pangs of guilty sympathy that so easily release spurts of old child–parent resentment—it’s all here. The emotions of O’Hagan’s women-on-the-shelf, West of Scotland working-class mothers dumped in sheltered housing, are utterly familiar. Maureen, for instance, is thoroughly happy in Lochranza Court, with its companionship and gossip, but she affects to be wretched and neglected when she talks to her grown-up children. “You like being upset, don’t you?” says Anne to her in a perceptive moment.
In other novels, Andrew O’Hagan has written about how—too often—no love is lost between fathers and sons in the West of Scotland. Here he shows how well he understands the cold wars between mothers and daughters, the buried grievances and jealousies (Why did she love him more than me, who’s done so much for her?) that climb to the surface like the smoulder of old Lanarkshire mine fires. O’Hagan’s mastery of these relationships is expressed in his perfect ear for local speech—Lochranza Court is at Saltcoats, in his native territory. It’s a region where “Aye, that’ll be right!,” said with a certain emphasis, means that it won’t be.
Anne’s daughter Alice, mother of Luke, is an intelligent, unhappy woman with her own grievance against her mother, a grievance whose deepest roots will only become clear when the lights go on at the end of the novel. But remonstrating with Anne is pointless now. Alice’s doctor has told her that “the thing with dementia was that it trapped the sufferer in vagueness and spoiled the offspring’s hope for a satisfying closure, especially if the relationship had been difficult.”
Alice married a soldier who was killed by an IRA bomb in Northern Ireland before the story begins, and their son Luke—clever and sensitive—has joined his father’s old regiment in a decision that astonishes everyone. Everyone, that is, except his beloved grandmother Anne, the guide of his boyhood who trains him to see beyond appearances. “‘Be true,’ she said, ‘if not to yourself, then to something more interesting than yourself.’”
The novel moves to Afghanistan, to the Helmand valley where British troops until recently fought, “pacified” Afghans, and died in a campaign they gave up trying to understand. Luke is a captain in the (fictional) Royal Western Fusiliers, a regiment largely recruited from both parts of Ireland. He is in charge of a squad of lively, foul-mouthed young soldiers, most of them in their teens; his company commander is Major Charlie Scullion from County Westmeath, a veteran of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq. They are part of an ultimate hearts-and-minds effort, an armored convoy setting off across hostile territory to deliver a new turbine to the Kajaki Dam and restore power to a whole region.
Andrew O’Hagan spent time in Afghanistan during the fighting and more time talking to soldiers in Britain and Ireland about their experiences there. His view of Britain’s part in the war in Helmand (“our Vietnam”) is that the enterprise was from its inception an utter failure, through no fault of the soldiers themselves, and he has said that “history will see our engagement in Afghanistan as a grand folly that only galvanized the forces of darkness.”
His researches in Afghanistan didn’t run to being “embedded” in an actual operation with British troops. Nonetheless, he shares with Erich Maria Remarque, among others, the gift for describing in overwhelmingly convincing detail scenes at which he wasn’t physically present. Remarque did it for a Nazi concentration camp in Spark of Life. O’Hagan does it for the suffocating heat, the weaponry, the sounds and smells inside an armored vehicle on the road through bandit territory, and for scenes of battle as the convoy is ambushed.
Captain Luke Campbell, Anne’s grandson, suffers from a growing sense of unreality as the Kajaki Dam operation proceeds. But the unreality of modern war is highly interesting to O’Hagan. The boys under Luke’s command go into combat with expectations drawn from video games. Luke reflects:
Younger soldiers often thought they knew the battleground; they saw graphics, screens, solid cover and fuck-off guns you could swap…. 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.
Luke is also worried about what is happening to Major Scullion. He is a contradictory figure, an officer with a reputation for vicious ruthlessness who reads poetry, has learned to speak a little Pashtun, and reveres the ancient past: “a perpetual scholar of green river valleys, an inspector of old travel books.” In Afghanistan, he has made a huge effort to believe that the army is there on a civilizing, improving mission: “Scullion had persuaded himself, just about, that creating electricity and irrigating the warlords’ poppy fields was a better idea than blasting the population from its caves.” But the strain of shielding this conversion against what’s blatantly happening in the field is too much: Scullion is cracking up.
When Luke examined his face he saw the eyes of a little counter-assassin from Westmeath. They were fogged with humanitarianism and strict orders, but they were still the eyes of a man who knew what to do in a dark alleyway.
Knew what he used to do, that is—but knows he can’t do it anymore. One night the convoy falls into a Taliban ambush, and while the lads are frantically returning fire, Scullion is found crouching and vomiting on the floor of the armored wagon. Luke tries to keep the bad news from the rest of his platoon. But the major goes on pretending that he is in control and in command, and a few days later, during a long halt, he leads Luke and a few others off on a crazily reckless expedition to see an old castle and village nearby.
What then happens in the village forms the peak of the novel. Luke, trained soldier that he is, eyes a group of boys and thinks he sees a mobile phone in a hand. “Luke tried to work out what was going on and he wanted to be friendly but he hated the phone and how they all stood still.” But Major Scullion (“Listen, guys. It’s cool. This is how we bring peace to these people”) won’t take heed.
The first shot kills a Scottish lance corporal called Mark (O’Hagan readers will by then have recognized him as the smart, cruel kid who wrecks the life of a naive young priest in his earlier novel Be Near Me). Massacre follows, as the soldiers respond with a torrent of fire on the villagers and retreat to their vehicles. They make it back to the convoy, bringing with them Major Scullion in a state of collapse.
When they finally arrive at the Kajaki Dam and fight a full-scale battle to storm the insurgent defenses, Scullion deliberately stumbles out of cover into the enemy mortar barrage. One leg is blown off and the other has to be amputated; back in Britain, he will eventually commit suicide rather than face “rehabilitation.” (The Kajaki convoy really happened. It delivered a crucial third turbine to the dam in 2008, but it seems that Taliban attacks have prevented its installation to this day.)
Afterward, Captain Luke Campbell leaves the army. The massacre in the village has become a public scandal, and an inquiry is being prepared. Luke returns to Scotland with all the alienations and angers that come with reentry into peacetime life after a war. In Glasgow he confronts his mother and her amiable, prosperous second husband, Gordon.
It’s the time when Scotland, amazed at its own excitement, is moving toward the 2014 independence referendum. Alice asks him if he isn’t proud of Scotland. O’Hagan has a pretty scornful view of Scottish nationalism, and Luke may be thought to be speaking for him when he retorts:
There’s no nation, Mum. There’s only people surfing the Net…. I love my country for its hills and its inventions, not for its sense of injury, not for its sentimental dream that there’s nobody like us.
Down in Saltcoats to see his grandmother again, he gets very drunk, and in an Irish-Catholic pub he finds himself confronting the father of Mark, that lance corporal slain in Helmand:
“He did his best.”
“No, he didn’t. He died, son. He died for nothing…. He was a fucking idiot.”
He gets no comfort from Charlie Scullion either, when he goes to see what remains of the major in a Birmingham hospital. Luke tries to thank him, for teaching him things. “Like what?” Scullian asks. “How to put trust in the wrong people? How to become a two-sided man?” The next news of the major to reach Luke will be that he has killed himself.
Back in Lochranza Court, Maureen is preparing lunch for a visit by her children and grandchildren, and “lavishly, early that morning, she began to exert herself making sure the lunch would be difficult. Them with their Edinburgh dinner parties and what have you.” Sour-flavored family comedy follows, as Maureen and her family grate on each other for the rest of the day. “Esther…brought one of those sweet Italian loaves full of sultanas that Maureen secretly liked but always said was too rich.”
This goes on for pages. It’s a family set piece not exactly relevant to the other narratives in the novel, but it’s never too long because Maureen is the most beautifully realized personality in The Illuminations. The Scots are famous for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory; Maureen, and some other women here, are adept at snatching grievance from the threat of happiness.
Anne, after some near misses, more or less recognizes Luke. “You’re the one with the imagination…. A boy and a half.” She doesn’t realize that she is to be moved out of her little apartment and into a more secure “home” for dementia sufferers. Neither can she take in the news that a museum in Canada has rediscovered her wonderful work of half a century ago and is planning an exhibition. But she is happy, she tells Luke, and he decides on impulse that he will take her to visit Blackpool, the place to which she always seems so drawn, the place where she was together with Harry, where her darkroom was. Harry, she insists, became a hero during the war, flying secret missions over enemy territory.
When the novel ends, after Blackpool, many things will have been brought to light. Anne’s darkroom is found, and a cupboard stacked with marvelous, forgotten prints from the days when Harry stood beside her and developed her negatives. It becomes pathetically clear who Harry was, and what he really did in and out of wartime. In Blackpool, it’s revealed why Alice felt so unloved by her mother and so jealous of the love she gave instead to a boy—Alice’s own son Luke. And it emerges that there is a terrible reason why Anne cares so tenderly for a porcelain rabbit. An illumination—a car’s headlights reflected in a rabbit’s shining eyes—brought the best period of her life to an end.
Nothing and nobody in this story is merely what appearance suggests. People—Harry or Maureen, Major Scullion or Luke himself—are sometimes this and sometimes that. They are not exactly “fellows who are two fellows,” those dualistic Scottish compounds of man and demon, light and darkness, made familiar by the critical work of the late Karl Miller (to whom this book is dedicated). Instead, they are Charlie Scullion’s “two-sided men” or women, different as they turn different sides of themselves toward the illumination. Diane Arbus, briefly mentioned here as a photographer-comrade from Anne’s New York days, once wrote that “our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way but there is a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you.”
Maureen used to find it amazing to talk to Anne. “She had all these pieces in her life that didn’t really fit together….” That could be said about The Illuminations, made up as an alternating sequence of three main narratives (Anne’s or Maureen’s at Lochranza Court, Luke’s in Afghanistan), sketches that can almost stand by themselves and sometimes don’t “really fit together.” Anne’s story, though, is partly a suspense tale. There is clearly a mystery about her life, and just as clearly the novel conveys that it is going to uncover the mystery at some point (there are tiny clues laid along the way, many so slight that they may only jump to notice at a second reading).
The pattern that recurs in Andrew O’Hagan’s story and discreetly pulls it together is unexpected, given his vigilance against sentimental accounts of Scotland. It’s human warmth. Everyone seems to be ready to care for somebody, while frequently reserving the right to moan. Anne cared for her maiden aunts and then took emotional charge of her lonely grandson; Maureen takes motherly charge of Anne; Alice is happiest cleaning Luke’s apartment (while pretending to resent it); the sisters running the Blackpool boardinghouse where Anne used to stay welcome her back in her dementia and nurse her like a lost child. Luke in Helmand is as concerned with protecting his lads as with hunting the enemy. Almost all O’Hagan’s characters, in Saltcoats or Glasgow, assume that they can rely on next-door neighbors for help, sympathy, and news. Lochranza Court, which a conventional writer might have invented as a hell-hole of lonely old folk exploited by callous staff, is a pretty good place to be for most of its residents.
Some people in The Illuminations—Harry, Major Scullion—behave badly, even disastrously. None gets away with it. Everyone comes to Diane Arbus’s point at which what people know about them penetrates what they want people to know about them—their “whole guise.” O’Hagan’s folk are two-sided: the decisions in their heads are one thing and their behavior quite another. And this is held to be common for most of humanity. One of the Blackpool ladies, reflecting on sorry truths about this Harry who was Anne’s lover and Luke’s grandfather, says: “You have to try to understand people like that, people who can’t have the life they want and are always making it up instead or running away.” This novel, which is a fine one, is concerned with both memory and mercy.