The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan

The Scottich writer Andrew O'Hagan
The Scottich writer Andrew O’Hagan
“There’s an art to telling the truth.”

My first instinct was to say that The Illuminations, O’Hagan’s latest novel, is about the past; but then every novel is about the past, even one written in the present since the actual present is only on the page you’re on. It is more accurate to say that The Illuminations is about the little lies of the past that make the present bearable.

The two main characters are Anne, a grandmother sinking slowly into dementia, but once a well known pioneeing documentary photographer with an inner artistic life that her family only vaguely acknowledges, and her grandson Luke, a Captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers fighting the dirty war in Afghanistan. He witnesses a horror that he could’ve prevented if it were not for his weak, and tormented commander. On his return to Britain he takes Anne on a trip to Blackpool to see the famous light show at the end of summer, the Illuminations, hoping she will remember more about the romance she had there with Luke’s grandfather, the photographs she took, and the reason that his family is like it is. He craves enlightenment to make sense of the past which he can only vaguely see: the facts that don’t add up; the questions unanswered.

I first discovered O’Hagan via his 2006 novel Be Near Me which turns on a moral mistake of the protagonist, a Catholic priest, Father Anderton. When he is finally brought to account for his ‘sin’ by his religious  superiors, the answer to the question he is asked only explains half the sin; and he is faced with a truely moral dilemma: should he simply answer the question knowing that the answer will satisfy his superiors and that will be the end of it, or should he, given the vows to his God, confess to ‘all’ the sin, and therefore end his vocation? The ‘action’ of the book is in the mind of Father Anderton, small compared to most novelistic plots, but I remember the feeling of the monumental challenge the man is asked to face; this is a ‘big’ story, or O’Hagan made it seem so.

The Illuminations isn’t quite as successful although the awkward scenes of a family get-together where the past and the present, old ideas and new, clash and bump are handled with insight and cringing recognition. O’Hagan is a master of the minutiae of the undercurrents and whirlpools that swirl beneath a family’s, and any personal, exterior. He also successfully describes that ellusive but sometimes debilitating feeling parents have of loving the family to visit but joyous when they leave.

O’Hagan is a well respected writer and his early novel, Our Fathers (1999) won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and it was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2001) as well as the Man-Booker Prize for Fiction (1999).

However his most intriguing work is a lengthy article in the London Review of Books, Ghosting Julian Assange in March 2014 which tells the fascinating story of the time he spent shadowing the Wikileaks founder with the contracted intention of ghosting an ‘autobiography’ of the man. I should explain that the book, not yet written, had already been bought by Canongate for £600,000 and sold-on to a range of big publishing houses including Knopf of New York. The book never happened but a lot of legal battles did; the article explains why, and at the same time gives a detailed picture of Assange, his behaviour: paranoid and, to some degree, his motivation: selfish. You can find the article at which also includes an audio file of O’Hagan speaking about Assange. 

He is also a playwright and his latest work for the stage is a doco/drama, Enquirer, staged by the National Theatre of Scotland in 2012 that deals with the machinations of the British press.

O’Hagan is a wonderful writer and there is a lot to enjoy in The Illuminations. I recommend it and Be Near Me as well.