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…
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