Andrew O’Hagan’s new novel
Memory and disillusion – at home and on the battlefield – are at the heart of Andrew O’Hagan’s latest novel, says Lucy Daniel
Anovel is a place where past and present versions of one person can coexist, and in his fifth novel Andrew O’Hagan movingly explores the way the “flotsam” of a life can rise to the surface as old age and memory go about their strange and poignant work. We meet 82-year-old Anne, who lives in sheltered accommodation in Saltcoats, Ayrshire. With the onset of dementia “an entire version of herself [is] moving into the shade”, but her life’s mysteries are waiting to be uncovered. Anne’s estranged daughter Alice tells her doctor she wishes she could spend half an hour with her mother as a young woman. “She hasn’t gone,” he replies. “Quite the opposite. She’s coming back.” Anne, it transpires, was a leading light in documentary photography in the Sixties, devoted to capturing the everyday but also delving into “a world beyond the obvious” to see its truth. Her grandson Luke was a thoughtful, bookish boy who to everyone’s surprise joined the Army. Capt Luke Campbell of the 1st Royal Western Fusiliers is returning home from Afghanistan, at the depth of his disillusion, to see the woman who “helped him to believe that a readiness for art was equal to a capacity for life”. The question is what happened to cut her off from a future full of possibility? Despite the pull of Anne’s story, the book’s most engaging moments are in Afghanistan. The soldiers, average age 18, wait for action in the unbearable heat of a troop carrier, where the Scottish and Scouse vernaculars permeate the banter of young men raised on Xbox war games. O’Hagan’s narrator refers to these scathingly as recruitment tools, pulling the youngsters to war by their thumbs. Gaming is their shadowy other life; it leads them from their own dark rooms to the scorching desert sun. In Kandahar, in a fug of heat and drugs, they are shepherded by people within their ranks and without into an abominable situation made more awful because the reader sees it coming from a long way off. It is a juggling act keeping the stories of both Afghanistan and Scotland in the air. Some of the overlap comes in serious conversations about Scottish nationalism in the context of what Luke sees as the disintegration of national boundaries (“money has imploded. Religion has gone mad. Privacy is disappearing”), confirming O’Hagan’s need as a brilliant essayist and journalist to be stimulatingly contemporary. There are insightful glimpses of subsidiary characters, such as a wife’s silent judgment of her husband sniffing his bowl of soup in a restaurant, or the sympathetic descriptions of squaddies on a big night out back home. What dementia suggests about the self – the internal life taking you beyond yourself – becomes the novel’s pressing concern. Anne has, or had, a “secret life” alone in her photographic darkroom. Then there is Luke’s other mentor, Major Scullion, the scholarly soldier with a fondness for Kipling, whose “great companion had always been his imagination”. Scullion, who has witnessed the unimaginable in Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone and Kosovo, attests to the idea of the self as a porous, non-permanent thing; “he had any number of selves to call on and he didn’t favour one in particular”. If he is called on to do unspeakable things, “to him, at some level, it was always another person doing it”. Is this because Scullion is an actor, is it a fault in his make-up, or is it just that each person is many people? In which case, what value can be ascribed to their “persistent idea of themselves as good men”? Kipling is an appropriate shade to be flitting through these pages. Though O’Hagan does not lean too heavily on the metaphorical meanings of his title’s “illuminations” – taken from the lights at Blackpool – Anne’s photographic work dramatises the process of revelation that the book describes. Scullion has romantic ideas about Alexander the Great and civilisation, bringing light to people across the great darkness, but he is leaving behind another lost world, of scholarly elites and seclusion in ivory towers, and his eventual disintegration speaks volumes. In our own contradictory age of photographic manipulation and perpetual photographic reportage, O’Hagan sets the question of whether a photograph can truly represent a real thing against the old-fashioned, atavistic pull of the Blackpool illuminations. He suggests questions about allegiance and loyalty, and the record of history. O’Hagan’s ability to sum up a life in the most poignant, matter-of-fact way is reminiscent of Kipling, too. Of Anne he writes: “She left herself behind in a room, and that way survived her own potential, until her mind began to fray.” That idea of surviving one’s own potential is one of the book’s gloomier burdens. It’s a measure of O’Hagan’s compassion that after balancing these stories of war and family – braving the battlefield and braving the passing of time – the ultimate note is hopeful and almost gentle, of something that seems real and vital.
Balancing act: Andrew O’Hagan’s fifth novel travels from Ayrshire to Afghanistan as it explores themes of personal and national disintegration