Title: The Illuminations
Author: Andrew O’Hagan
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House Canada
Publication Date: March 3, 2015
Synopsis from Goodreads:
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.
The Illuminations is a book about family, about memory, about personal history, and about perception. Anne Quirk was once a photographer, but now, in her old age, she has developed dementia and while she is often lucid, she frequently slips away from the present, unsure of her world and the people around her. For someone who lived her life to capture the essence of the world around her, to preserve memories eternally in her photos, she no longer holds the same grasp on her reality. Anne’s grandson, Luke is on tour in Afghanistan in the same regiment in which his own father was killed. Luke faces his own trials that make him question everything he has ever known.
This is a story that is often sad , but it’s pretty slow going. While I was compelled by Anne’s story, I wanted to get to know her even more. Her life is really a mystery. It’s hard for anyone, even the other characters in the story, to get to know her and what she used to be like before the dementia. We get snippets of her life, but I would have loved to know her more, to hear more about her photographs and her life. It was a bit hard to get into her story because we get her tale in fits and starts.
Through Anne, we’re introduced to her neighbour, Maureen. I found Maureen’s story to be the biggest struggle in this story. It kind of just dies halfway through the book and she sinks into the background. I found this quite frustrating because Maureen has so many struggles of her own and I felt there was very little resolution, if any at all.
I quite liked Luke’s story. I found him to be a very complex character. To be functional and successful in the same regiment in which his own father was killed, Luke is a very strong character. He has no love, no ties to real life beyond the relationship that he has with his grandmother who is slowly but surely forgetting who he is. Luke witnesses so many terrible things in the army and he struggles to cope and find some normalcy in his life. His struggles are very real and I found him to be the most accessible character in the book.
I gave this book 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads and I did so because I couldn’t really get immersed in this book. O’Hagan’s style is easy to read, but I found the characters to be distant. It was difficult to connect with most people in the book, although their lives are all quite difficult and often emotionally moving. I’m on the fence about it right now.