Every so often you come across what reads like an almost perfect novel. From the opening sentence of Andrew O'Hagan's fifth novel, The Illuminations, you know you are going to be taken somewhere thrilling. His central character, Anne Quirk, photographer of the mundane and overlooked moment, is capable of giving even the most despised kitchen utensil a compelling gleam, and so too does O'Hagan in this novel which is crafted so elegantly you forget there is a craft to it, and each page reveals something both recognisably familiar and brand new.
Illumination is at the heart of the novel which explores light in all its moods: dark-rooms and cross-fire, metaphor and truth, levity and gravity. What is revealed shifts according to the light we see it in. But O'Hagan guides us through the dazzle and glare with such tenderness, such candour about relationships, honour, betrayal and love that we emerge from the reading as transfigured as if we were ourselves in love.
The novel is structured around two counterposed narratives of identity: the story of Anne Quirk and that of her grandson, Luke (named for the light) who is serving in Afghanistan. Both stories are fully believable: the disintegrating, fragmented personal narrative of the old lady, dislocated by dementia and most thoroughly realised through what she has created and what is remembered by others; and the disintegrating fragmented political narrative of her grandson, whose interrogations of loyalty and glory most closely plot and unhook the national narratives of identity.
I loved this novel. I loved it for its simple beauty, and for the fact that it focuses the attention on the smallest particular, and makes that detail reveal something large about us. I hope it makes the shortlist. Indeed I hope it wins the prize, for it would be a worthy winner. And I recommend it to you with all my heart, as a novel that you should read, because it is true and powerful and rich in both sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity.
The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele