The Illuminations

The Illuminations

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A British army captain whose artistic pioneer grandmother lived an illusory life to cope with hardships begins transforming his own sense of reality in the aftermath of a mission gone wrong before confronting a mystery from his family's past.
Publisher: ** E-Book // Click on DOWNLOAD link to place holds
ISBN: 9780374712730
Branch Call Number: EBOOK TEXT
Alternative Title: Illuminations : a novel


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May 10, 2016

Curiously, this book raises many questions similar to those of the last one I read (Little Bastards in Springtime, also published in 2015, and with a cover image that uses the same form). It deals with the stories that we tell ourselves about war and about living our lives.
The contemporary war in this story is the British forces in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. (It was the Bosnian civil war in Little Bastards.) It’s complicated by a separate story in which a woman is losing her memories of her husband in the second world war. Both lines of this novel involve a lot of story-telling.
Luke (a Scot) joined the British Army to follow his father who was killed in Ireland, a bit of complicated story telling in itself. He leads a company into an Afghan skirmish that goes badly. He no longer buys the stories (even the cynical ones the soldiers tell themselves), although he does play along with his mates when he meets them later – perhaps in order not to weaken their own faith.
Anne’s story is more complicated still. A Canadian photographer who relocated to New York where she trained with Stieglitz, then relocated to England following World War 2, she forms a relationship with a photographer in Blackpool before moving to live in Scotland. She is inspired creatively by him, and has a relationship that leads to a child. Later we find out that the stories he has told her, and that she has told her family and perhaps believes herself, are not entirely true. But by the time of the novel, she is slipping into Alzheimer’s disease, confuses the past and the present, and seems happy to believe the stories that she has been telling everyone. To her, they are the reality, and happier than the life she has led.
The two stories come together when Luke, Anne’s grandson, takes her to Blackpool, finds out the reality, and concludes that Anne can live the rest of her life happily in her idealized fantasy. He seems to accept that the stories in his own life might be okay too, if they help people cope.
In spite of the interesting themes, and the polished prose in this novel, it didn’t do much for me. I found it too removed and I never felt drawn to the story or the characters. There is a distant, detached tone, and the story itself is just not very interesting. This may just be an idiosyncratic response, because I know the book is well regarded, and was nominated for a Booker prize. There are many good things about the book – O’Hagen has some poetic, precise descriptive language that is quite evocative. And he has a facility for shifting viewpoints around a scene, sometimes showing how two or three people see it within a single paragraph. His descriptions of Luke’s crew in the heat of Afghanistan, not sure who to trust, not knowing what’s ahead, and the sudden reaction when things go wrong, give what seem to be a very realistic picture of a military crew.
But all of this, somehow, leaves me unengaged. When I compare it to the reaction I had to Little Bastards, it lacks the emotional response that Jevrem’s story drew out. Possibly young Jevrem is just a more relatable character than the older introspective Luke. And Anne is barely there except as a character that other people relate to, and most of her past seems absent. Perhaps this is the challenge of writing about a character whose past is evaporating.
Overall, I found this novel unsatisfying, and I found myself eager to get through it.

May 05, 2016

I found the contrasts in this book very moving. The stories of the grandmother trying to remember her past with the onset of dementia and her grandson wanting to forget his experiences in the British army in Afghanistan and their close relationship were well-written and insightful.

Sep 07, 2015

just didn't have the patience for this one.

Sep 05, 2015

With one exception, I found the characters flat and one-dimensional.

Apr 07, 2015

This book is bittersweet. It is the story of a woman and her Grandson. The grandson has the demons of Afghanistan (the descriptions of war are excellent) and his Grandmother has been devastated by the loss of love that only comes out now she is getting older and suffering from dementia. They come together at the end of the book and heal somewhat. Life is hard!

Mar 21, 2015

This book tells the story of Anne Quirk, a documentary photography based on Canadian Margaret Watkins, suffering from early dementia, and her grandson, a veteran of Afghanistan. There are many parallels in the book about seeing and photography, about a woman remembering and a grandson trying to forget. Anne Quirk is portrayed very sympathetically while the parts of the book from Afghanistan were less well done.

Feb 11, 2015

Excellent, extremely engaging and stunningly everything by O'Hagan.


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