The Illuminations. Andrew O’Hagan.

O’Hagan, Andrew. The Illuminations. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 2015. Electronic version on Kindle. F;9/15.

This story had for me enough insight and sentiment that it was clear this author has what I call grace: a classy and enviable way with words. But stepping back and looking for some overarching achievement, although I’d say he does accomplish it, it’s nothing new and feels somehow a bit… too easy.

I have of course an aversion to fictional art that focuses on illness. The usual effect is to make of disease something mysterious and metaphoric. But Anne’s dementia didn’t bother me as much as that kind of thing usually does. She was emotionally and imaginatively real, independent of the memory loss, and the disease served a simple dramatic purpose and wasn’t the whole story.

Three generations are represented, and we focus on elderly Anne, a former successful photographer, and her grandson Luke. Anne’s memory is deteriorating in a seniors’ residence, and her daughter (who never connects effectively with her) is replaced by a neighbour, Maureen, who also has trouble bridging the gap to another generation, her children. Luke is an officer in combat in Afghanistan, and there are nicely-rendered war scenes including an ambush in which several people are killed, and Luke’s commander, Scullion, is exposed as both a coward and a strategic blunderer.

It’s Luke who takes his grandmother to Blackpool where she succeeded as a photographer and lived with a charismatic lover, Harry, while Luke’s mother Alice and Maureen pack Anne’s things up to move her to a nursing home. On a particular evening in the North English seaside town the lights are suddenly all turned on (the “illumination”), and Luke and Anne find her history, marriage, and photographic vision illuminated as well.

There is some intrigue surrounding what happened to Anne’s husband Harry, whose military career which inspired Luke turns out to be bogus, but the main current in the story seems to me to be artistic, and life, success. Success in the sense of meaning, and meaning consisting of love. Scullion, the foolish coward who however has an artistic side and Maureen, strangely and sadly disliking her children but doing her best to help Anne, are presented as finally not successful in that sense.

Here is a description of Scullion:

Scullion was one of those actors. He had any number of selves to call on and he didn’t favour one in particular. That’s why he could do things other people couldn’t do, because, to him, at some level, it was always another person doing it.

But Anne’s phony but adored husband Harry does manage to represent a dramatic and emotional full circle through Anne’s vision, entirely in spite of her failing brain and his deceit. So finally I found the statement I thought I heard here: artistic and life success through love,  convincing.

So how, we wonder, would author O’Hagan want us to construe avoiding being a Scullion (or a Maureen, or an Alice, or even a Harry as we find he was)? Belief based on love would be consistent with this story.

Even if what we love and believe in turns out to be nothing more than an artful appearance when somebody shines a really bright light on it. This idea isn’t something we’ve never heard before, but in this straightforward story it’s nicely repeated. And of course for dementing Anne applying the bright light doesn’t spoil the magic. It’s an ill wind… 8.4/8.6.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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