Wednesday 20 November 2019

John Boland on the new novel from an award-winning Scottish writer

Andrew O'Hagan
Andrew O'Hagan

John Boland

The conviction that there's no such thing as an ordinary life lies at the heart of almost all fiction and it's explicitly stated towards the end of Andrew O'Hagan's fifth novel, as young soldier Luke considers his grandmother Anne, who has been inexorably slipping into dementia but whose true story has finally become known to him.

They're at the illuminations in Blackpool, that ritual in which the lights of the seaside resort are turned on for the winter, and they're there because the town offers the key to the unlocking of Anne's secret history, not just as a pioneering photographer but as a woman whose longing for personal happiness remained unfulfilled.

Luke himself is about to leave the army after successive tours in Iraq and a hellish stint in Afghanistan, where much of the book is set and where Glasgow-born O'Hagan visited as a journalist two years ago. He has described his experience there as "hair-raising" and the terrifyingly described scene at a rural Afghan wedding is certainly that as Luke and his mainly Irish platoon are betrayed and ambushed, with life-altering consequences.

Indeed, at the core of this powerfully affecting novel lies the question: how much is a life worth? For battle-hardened but war-weary poetry lover Major Scullion from Mullingar, the career he chose to pursue ends in pointless catastrophe, his crack-up causing mayhem both to his men and to himself. Meanwhile, the local people caught between the occupying forces and the insurgents are merely collateral damage, their violent deaths unmourned by anyone except family and friends.

"This is how we bring peace to these people", Scullion announces as the platoon, in an unscheduled diversion from their planned route, enter the village where the wedding is about to take place. "Showing face. Taking an interest. A wee bit of civilised banter," he says. Then the carnage erupts. Yet though the author is clearly appalled by the counter-productive senselessness of western involvement in Afghanistan, his sympathies are also clearly with the soldiers on the ground who are forced to enact the policies of their governments, and there's a vibrant sense of the obscene but fond exchanges between men who find themselves in extreme situations with nothing but the loyalty and courage of colleagues to shield them from harm's way.

Back home in Scotland, Luke seeks to discover the real story of his beloved grandmother, who had always urged him to strive for truth and meaning in his life but whose own life remained an enigma to him. This is finely and movingly teased out, as is her relationship with her resentful daughter and with the next-door neighbour in her assisted housing, though it lacks the urgency of the Afghan episodes and there's a sense that the author is straining to reconcile both of these stories and make from them a deeper meditation on lost lives and found identities.

The reader may not be entirely persuaded by this but the book's final section, in which Luke takes Anne back to the Blackpool of her younger life and her ongoing dreams, is very touching.

The ­Illuminations

Andrew O'Hagan

Faber & Faber, hdbk, 304 pages, €19.45

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

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