The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
I’ve often said I learn as much about books from my customers as they do from me. Recently a customer asked for a book about “a female photographer from Hamilton who went to Ireland” and there is a new movie about her. So, I did a little detective work and discovered that he was correct, and not so correct. No movie, not Ireland, but yes from Hamilton. The novel is The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan and is the interesting, if sometimes disturbing, story of an elderly woman who once had a career as a photographer. Woven into her story is the imagined story of her fictional grandson who serves with the British military in Afghanistan.
Anyone British might know before opening the covers that the Illuminations referred to are the Blackpool Illuminations, when the dark nights are illuminated by electric lights along the seaside promenade. An annual event, the lights along the promenade and its attractions, bring millions of people to this seaside city.
Andrew O’Hagan has placed his character, Anne Quirk, in a sort of co-op housing complex in Glasgow in much the present time. We meet the elderly Anne, who is losing her memory, but is still fiercely independent. Anne has a daughter, Alice, an only child of a single mother – no father ever acknowledged. Alice and her mother have a difficult relationship, but Alice’s son Luke and his grandmother are very close.
The novel reveals Anne’s life in Glasgow, as we learn that she was born in Canada, but came to Glasgow to care for her elderly aunts and never left. We discover that she was a photographer of some repute, and that she long ago had a lover for whom she appears to have given it all up.
Anne’s grandson, Luke, is a young man who though well educated choses to join the military. He has served in many war zones before his assignment to Afghanistan. The young soldiers he commands are boys who’d once played violent video games in the safety of their own homes, now looking for action as soldiers with real guns and a real enemy. I found the chapters with Luke and the soldiers very disturbing – distressed at the thought that it might really be as the author describes.
During Luke’s time in Afghanistan, we witness Anne’s decline in Glasgow as she becomes less able to look after herself and there is no doubt that she will have to move into some sort of assisted living residence. Anne’s neighbor, Maureen, helps Anne, as much for her own need to be useful as from genuine selflessness. Maureen, sadly, has never been able to express her love to her own children and grandchildren, never being able to let them know how very much she does love them.
And, bit by bit the story of Anne’s past is revealed. When Luke takes Anne to Blackpool, a place she has always spoken of as wonderful, and here the story comes full circle and we find out what happened to Anne in the years before.
This novel is based upon the life and career of a real woman - Margaret Watkins. She was born in Hamilton, had a stellar career as a photographer, and moved to the United States when she was 23, in 1909, where she established a successful studio. In 1928 she went to Glasgow to visit her aunts, and stayed to care for them until the last one died during the Second World War. End of story - until her friend and heir opened a trunk and found all of her photographic work. Margaret Watkins photographs have since been shown, studied and celebrated in Canada and abroad.
The Illuminations left me with more questions than answers about this intriguing woman. I did a little research and it does not appear that Margaret Watkins ever had a child – so why did she leave her career? What really happened in her life?
Of course, none of this makes any difference as far as the novel is concerned. Andre O’Hagan has taken the woman, her work and her journey to Glasgow, invented the rest and written an absorbing and fascinating novel.