The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
Hardcover, 294 pages
In Canada—Published February 17th, 2015 by McClellan&Stewart
(an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada)
In the US—To be published March 24th, 2015 by Farrar, Straus & Girroux
A copy of this book was provided by Random House Canada. I received this book for my honest opinion and review. All thoughts are completely honest and my own.
Anne Quirk, a once famous photographer, now lives in a retirement community in Scotland. Her presence there is threatened by her worsening dementia and her growing inability to take care of herself. The Illuminations is the story of those whose lives have been touched by this enigmatic woman. There is Anne’s lonely and nosy neighbour Maureen; her jaded and bitter daughter Alice; and her grandson Luke, who is trying to find himself among the troops on another tour in Afghanistan. These three have each experienced different sides of Anne, and have been affected by her in different ways. However, Anne has nonetheless played an important role in their lives. As time goes on, they try to get to know Anne better—get a sense of her mysterious past and what made her tick so that they might be able to appreciate the woman she really was.
The narrator in this story changes focus between Maureen, Alice, and Luke, while occasionally inserting a thought or memory from Anne in italics. This structure gives the reader a deeper understanding of all the characters and worked really well with the story. Each of these characters were, for the most part, well developed. This is especially true of Maureen and Luke, but Alice at times fell a bit flat. While we discover the root of Alice’s bitterness, we never really get a good picture of who she is as a person. Moreover, at first I had expected to see more of Anne’s perspective, thinking she was the main character in the story. She is, however, more of a driving and uniting force, rather than a main character. Her character oftentimes remains mysterious and distant. This, however, ended up working really well. We are entering the story late in her life, and she does have dementia, after all. We the readers experience a similar distance that Maureen, Alice, and Luke must feel, as they too are unable to truly connect with Anne in the present.
I really enjoyed this book, especially the parts that revolved around Anne and Maureen in the retirement community. Their friendship and connection were really compelling and I enjoyed reading about it. I also loved the way that everything always came back to Anne and her Harry, and what really happened. I did, however, have a few qualms.
First and foremost, the synopsis on the jacket was rather misleading. It led me to believe that this story would mainly be about the relationship between Luke and Anne, and the meaning of family. While this was present in the novel, it didn’t show up until the last sixty or seventy pages. Honestly, I feel the description in the synopsis about when Luke returns to Scotland should be omitted because it happens so late in the story! You don’t need to know about it just going in! This story is much more about connection, and what binds us to other people. While all of this is certainly not the fault of the author or the book, it did unfortunately colour my reading experience.
Second, if you’ve read my reviews and grown accustomed to my tastes, you might know how I feel about vulgarity and language in books. It’s just not my thing. I don’t find it enjoyable. It’s more distracting to me than anything! When the perspective shifts to Luke in Afghanistan, it felt like every other word was an f-bomb. Not only that, but they used language that was degrading to women and just all around vulgar. I didn’t enjoy that aspect. Having never been in an all-male army platoon, I can’t speak to its accuracy. But that’s not the point. I just didn’t enjoy that aspect at all.
And third, there were times I had trouble following the dialogue, to be honest. I’m not particularly familiar with Scottish slang and vernacular, so at times I felt out of the loop.
All in all, The Illuminations is a beautiful work of literary fiction about identity, secrets, family, and human connection.
I recommend this book to a mature audience that enjoys general adult fiction, literary fiction, and books that make you think! If you are sensitive to swearing, know that at times it gets a little R-rated in terms of language.
Overall Enjoyment B+
Beth is the founder and editor of Fuelled by Fiction. She is a twenty-something east coast Canadian girl who loves writing about books and feminism.