The Illuminations – A book review

The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan


This is the first book of this author’s that I have read. I will be looking for some more, to see if other characters are so well drawn. Andrew O’Hagan was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 1999 for Our Fathers, and this book (The Illuminations) was a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime.

When I saw the title I thought it would be all about Blackpool and the Illuminations.

Well,  you know what they say, never judge a book by it’s cover, or it’s title come to that. Blackpool and the Illuminations do figure, but not in a major way until the latter part of the book.

I believe this book to be one of stories, of how stories that we all tell within our families begin, are told and retold and of how they affect the people both telling and hearing them. How stories are woven to protect, inspire, educate and remind. How stories and family relationships can be intertwined for both better and worse.

There are three characters central to this story, Maureen, Ann and Luke.

Maureen is Ann’s next door neighbour in the sheltered housing accommodation. It is Maureen who discovers the treasures of the past, and who tries to keep her friend going by settling her if she wanders, cooking her late night snacks, and wondering about the stone rabbit which is kept close. Ann is living with dementia and the past, and is not going to be able to stay in her current home for much longer. Maureen tries hard to mend the broken family, with calls to Ann’s daughter (Alice) to update her on Ann’s state of mind.

Ann is Luke’s grandmother and was a famous photographer in her youth. Ann has memories of Blackpool and her rooms there, and as the story gradually untangles we discover why Ann does not get on with her daughter Alice (Luke’s mother) perhaps as well as she would like. Alice is also rather jealous of the relationship between Ann and Luke. Stories from the past are mixed with those of the present, and Luke vows to help his Grandmother with her move to a new place as a way of trying to come to terms with what happened in Afghanistan when a mission goes hideously wrong.

I found the book to be well informed about Afghanistan and the traumas felt by soldiers returning home. The injuries and the circumstances by which they came about are well written, not gory, but not withholding detail.

I did find this book hard going to be honest, though the fault is mine rather than the author’s.

As I have an interest in photography, particularly photographic history, I found some of the descriptions of the photography undertaken by Anne particularly interesting and it led me to look into photographs of that era, and to discover that some of the images described where taken by a photographer called Margaret Watkins and I enjoyed looking at her life and work as an aside.

I was sent this book in return for an honest  review.

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