Ah, Rudyard Kipling’s ghost, we don’t hear much of him nowadays. In the roll call of literary spectres that haunt modern fiction he manages little more than the occasional cameo. He is the zombie taxi driver to Hemingway’s Slimer, to Henry James’ Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, to James Joyce’s Gozer, to Jane Austen’s Zuul. Nevertheless, he still has his uses. If you need to get to 57th street, a zombie taxi driver will get you there. Kipling is, for better or worse, (and the jury is still out on that one) our poet of Empire and if you want to write about the remnants of Empire and its effect on our national psyche, and you are the type of writer who likes to investigate these sort of things while simultaneously reflecting upon the work of other writers (and Lord knows, Andrew O’Hagan is) then Kipling might just be your phantom. Your chain rattler, I guess, if we are to push this mixed metaphor to at least the approximation of a logical conclusion.
The Illuminations switches between the stories of Anne Quirk and her grandson Luke. Anne is living in sheltered accommodation, very close to being moved to the next, higher, level of care; Luke is serving in Afghanistan with the Royal Western Fusiliers. Their stories come together when Luke returns to Scotland and he and Anne together confront a mystery from her past. This being literary fiction, Anne was also once a groundbreaking documentary photographer, all their other relatives have jobs useful to the author when he wants to introduce discussions about memory and history, and Anne and Luke share a bond because they both love reading classic British literature from the last couple of centuries (with Kipling, almost inevitably, being one of the writers name-checked).
So, for those of you familiar with the works of Kipling, what we end up with is a kind of amalgam of The Gardener and the stories collected together in Soldiers Three and Other Stories – which translates, roughly, for those of you not familiar with the works of Kipling (and why the hell should you be, eh? Why the hell should you be) as quiet introspection meets an attempt to realistically portray the situations that serving in the military may lead to and the people who find themselves in those situations. Interestingly, as with Kipling, the introspection is much more successful than the portrayal of war. Which is not to say that O’Hagan has failed in capturing the feeling of war (God knows I am not qualified to tell you what that may or may not consist of, and having spent time with troops in Afghanistan, O’Hagan almost certainly is). Rather it is his need to portray the truth, or at least the truth he experienced, of war, that leads O’Hagan down something of a literary cul-de-sac. Fine, I can taste the sand in my mouth, I can feel the tension, I can, mostly, buy the rendering of speech patterns I am a generation removed from, but to what end? Just as any reader of a collection of Kipling’s stories will tell you that they skipped Black Jack after about a page of struggling through phonetically correct but painfully unnecessary dialect, the reader of The Illuminations, which is to say I, found the sections set in Afghanistan too worthy, too in debt to our troops abroad and the bravery they display every day, to work as fiction. At the risk of spoiling the plot, it is even those pesky Americans what done it, not ‘our boys’. More worrying though is that this verisimilitude is so quickly sacrificed to the god of interlinking-metaphors-and-stilted-dialogue-as-characters-work-through-arguments-the-author-wants-to-present-to-the-reader that this sort of literary fiction requires.
The Illuminations is, in short, a ‘Booker book’. I’m willing to put my neck on the line and say right now that it will win the Man Booker Prize this year. It has everything their juries love: war, personal tragedy, meditations on the nature of memory, two interlinking narratives, a story that ‘crosses generations’, and, of course, the middle class.
And I sound such an illiterate, bitter idiot right now, I know.
The Illuminations is in no way a bad book. I loved the first fifty pages of it. But I also spent the rest of the novel hankering for those first fifty pages. The story of two women in an old folks home, their delicate relationship, a friendship that has to navigate gaps in memory and personality, the undeniable beauty of the descriptions of their surroundings, I loved all that, was fascinated by it. It was enough. There was a good novel in that and that alone. I didn’t need everything else. I didn’t need the baggage of literary fiction – the metaphors, the literary discussions, the angst of children not meeting their parents’ expectations, the need to make capital B, Big arguments – because two women, at the end of their lives, and how they deal with that time, is enough, is more than enough for great fiction.
Any Cop?: I suspect this will be the only bad review you will read of this book which will, undoubtedly, pick up a parade of awards. It is an attempt to capture the zeitgeist which is in many ways successful, but for me, it is more successful as literature before it tries to tell me the spirit of our time. At the outset, when the story has room to breathe, the quality of the writing shines brightest.