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Book of the month

January 2016 book of the month: THE ILLUMINATIONS by Andrew O'Hagan.

88 replies

TillyMumsnetBookClub · 04/12/2015 14:26

The acclaimed novelist, journalist and critic Andrew O’Hagan has been nominated for the Booker Prize three times and was voted one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists. His latest book The Illuminations is a multilayered story that centres on two main characters: Anne, a former photographer who is now slipping into dementia in a sheltered housing complex and her grandson Luke Campbell, an army captain on a humanitarian mission in Afghanistan. When Luke returns, almost destroyed by his experience in a misguided and futile war, he takes his grandma to Blackpool, where fragments of her memories appear and disappear like the famous lights. Reading her old letters and looking at photos, Luke ‘witnessed her spirit survive a series of trials he had never known about, and it made her love her more, while doubting the strength and consistency of men, including himself’. Full of secrecy, memory and loss, this is a beautifully constructed novel from a wise and gifted writer, whose first-hand experience and talent for dialogue bring his subject alive.

You can read about Andrew’s experiences in Afghanistan and the background to his novel in this excellent Telegraph interview

What the critics said:

‘Moves with bold, imaginative daring and a troubled intensity between men at war and women with their children, between Scotland and Afghanistan, between photography and fiction, and between memory and secrets.’ Guardian

‘Only in fiction as good as this will you find war, sex, nationalism and the care of the elderly, truthfully handled. The Illuminations is a novel which validates the greatness of fiction in hands as masterly as Andrew O'Hagan’ The Times

‘I was reminded of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections because O'Hagan dramatises the ways lives twist and turn in concert with history, locating the precious and profound in the everyday.’ Independent on Sunday

Book giveaway:

Faber have 50 copies of The Illuminations to give to Mumsnetters: to claim your copy, please fill in your details on the book of the month page. We’ll post here on the thread when all the copies have gone. If you’re not lucky enough to bag one of those, you can always get a Kindle edition or paperback here. Alternatively you could download the audiobook and listen to it on the go. Audible are offering Mumsnet users two free audiobooks when they sign up for a free trial. For details see their partner offer page.

We are delighted that Andrew will be joining us on Wednesday 27 January to discuss The Illuminations, his previous award-winning novels and his writing career. Please feel free to discuss the book here throughout the month and then come and meet Andrew on the night, ask him a question or simply tell him what you thought of the book.

January 2016 book of the month: THE ILLUMINATIONS by Andrew O'Hagan.
January 2016 book of the month: THE ILLUMINATIONS by Andrew O'Hagan.
OP posts:
Givemecoffeeplease · 27/01/2016 20:59

Another Q from me. Why Blackpool? I've never seen the illuminations, but they are so representative of being around for a long time (Anne), and enchanting for all ages and generations. They are a constant in the book, and will be around long after Anne has gone. A nice motif - what do the illuminations mean to you?

TillyMumsnetBookClub · 27/01/2016 21:00

Evening everyone

Firstly, thank you to all those who have written their reviews and thoughts so far, and I do hope you’ve been able to make it tonight for the live chat.

I'm thrilled to welcome Andrew O’Hagan to Bookclub this evening. Andrew is an essayist, critic, novelist and journalist whose previous books include the Booker-shortlisted Our Fathers, and the brilliant Personality. His latest novel is THE ILLUMINATIONS. I am delighted that we have a chance to talk to Andrew about all these and more over the next hour.

Andrew, thank you very, very much indeed for giving us your time tonight. And congratulations on THE ILLUMINATIONS and on your countless awards and prize nominations for all your terrific books.

I'll kick off with the standard Mumsnet ones that we like to ask all our authors...

What childhood book most inspired you?

What would be the first piece of advice you would give to anyone attempting to write fiction?

What is the best book you have given anyone recently?

And the best you've received?

Over to you...

OP posts:
AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:01

Good evening Tilly!

Great to be here on Mumsnet.

What childhood book most inspired you?

There was a children’s book by Anna Holm called I Am David, about a boy escaping from a jail in Albania and journeying across Europe to find his mother. I read it about 20 times when I was 8. It was so clever and so exciting, but also it conveyed something that has never left me, a lesson in self-creation, as if one of our tasks in being alive is to find out what we can become.


@TillyMumsnetBookClub

Evening everyone

Firstly, thank you to all those who have written their reviews and thoughts so far, and I do hope you’ve been able to make it tonight for the live chat.

I'm thrilled to welcome Andrew O’Hagan to Bookclub this evening. Andrew is an essayist, critic, novelist and journalist whose previous books include the Booker-shortlisted Our Fathers, and the brilliant Personality. His latest novel is THE ILLUMINATIONS. I am delighted that we have a chance to talk to Andrew about all these and more over the next hour.

Andrew, thank you very, very much indeed for giving us your time tonight. And congratulations on THE ILLUMINATIONS and on your countless awards and prize nominations for all your terrific books.

I'll kick off with the standard Mumsnet ones that we like to ask all our authors...

What childhood book most inspired you?

What would be the first piece of advice you would give to anyone attempting to write fiction?

What is the best book you have given anyone recently?

And the best you've received?

Over to you...
AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:02

What would be the first piece of advice you would give to anyoneattempting to write fiction?

Read great books. And go outside. Sitting in your study for forty years might produce a masterpiece but it probably won’t. There are a million new things in the world every day — look for them — and look for the new things in yourself. If you’re going to be a writer you need to be willing to work all the time. You close your eyes to sleep at night and a blank sheet of paper unfolds before you.

What was the best book you've given recently?

To a friend who was under the weather, I gave a copy of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Reading that story is like drinking a cold glass of champagne on a warm summer’s day. And at the heart of all its delightfulness there’s a beautiful moral about how to live up to your better self.

And the best you've received?

My daughter gave me a book of her drawings — she’s 11 — and I fell into a kind of swoon of thinking every one was a masterpiece. But that doesn’t count. (Heaven hath no favour like a daddy’s opinion of his daughter.) I was given an early edition of a memoir by Jack and John Sutherland, and it’s called Stars, Cars, and Crystal Meth. I know, it doesn’t sound COMPLETELY Mumsnet, but it is a great book about getting over addiction, and getting to know your child. Jack was an assistant to the stars and owned a limousine company in Hollywood. He tells every difficult truth there is about being a lost person, but he does it without self-pity, telling his story to his father, whose interjections are masterly.

AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:04

@FernieB

Finished this yesterday after just 3 sittings. I enjoyed the characters, especially Maureen and Alice, and the dialogue was particularly well written. The contrast in style/language between the Luke's story and Maureen/Ann's story was brilliantly done. So often with multiple narratives I find I lose track of who's telling the story, but not in this book.

I'm probably a bit premature posting a question, but I understand that Andrew went to Afghanistan to do some research for Luke's story. I'd like to know if there's a particular incident or person from his trip that teally stayed with him? Also did he do any research into sheltered housing schemes and dementia?


Good evening, FernieB. Thanks for that. Yes, I spent a bit of time in Afghanistan and was left with a very strong memory of some of the child jihadis I was with. Some of these kids were 9 years old, a whole group of them, and they’d been trained to wear suicide vests and blow up army vehicles and personnel. The kids I met had been captured and were imprisoned but were now being schooled and set on a different path. It was heartbreaking. One of them, Abdul, about 10, looked sad when I asked him if he had heard from his mum whilst in Kandahar jail. He said yes, she had sent him a note saying, ‘You’ll get them next time.’ I didn’t use it in the novel, but it has never left my mind.
AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:05

You also asked about sheltered housing complexes, FernieB. I know them very well from personal experience, and I feel they’re rather wonderful. I’d be happy to live in one when I was old. I love the community feel, and the way different women take on different roles, depending on how well or how young they are. I’ve spend a lifetime watching women performing those roles, and I always suspected the novelist in me would home in on them one day. My mother is a great storytelling influence, because she knows that world very well. She can see my eyes light up as she tells me little tales about people who might become transformed 100 times in a novel but who gave me a little fresh spark.

RoastieToastieReastie · 27/01/2016 21:06

^that is absolutely harrowing about the Afganistan stories. I am just Shock.

BearAusten · 27/01/2016 21:07

I very glad I received a copy of this novel. Otherwise, I would probably have not read it, overlooking it due to the subject matter. Thank you.

I agree with Soupswoops's comments about the different covers of the hardback and paperback. I prefer the ambiguity of the former. Do you have any say about how your work is presented?

Did you decide that Anne would be a 'documentary photographer' before having her grandson, Luke, as a soldier in Afghanistan? I suppose I was thinking about the flash of the camera as opposed to the flashbacks of a 'traumatized mind'/ 'flashes' of lucidity. Ironic, that Luke seeks to forget his past and is grandmother seeks to remember hers.

AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:08

This is for givemecoffeeplease, whose brother served in the army.

Thank you, Givemecoffeeplease. I don’t have any military training at all. The cliche about writing is that you should ‘write about what you know’. If that was true, you’d never have adventure or fantasy, because most writers live pretty settled lives bound to a desk. So, I went out and looked for soldiers. I was especially drawn to these Irish soldiers I found in Belfast. One of them had been blown up in Afghanistan and he gave me a lot of insight. These boys have a way of talking that brought me right back to my childhood, among boys. I have three older brothers and I always ran in a group when I was young. So, it came naturally to me, once I knew the military jargon. You have to remember, these soldiers are nearer to being kids than anything else: 18, 19. I always knew my central character would be an army officer because he came to me that way, dressed in uniform, ready with any luck to let me tell a tender story about family and conflict.

AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:08

@Givemecoffeeplease

My brother was in the army and I was fascinated by the military chapters "on the job". Do you have a military background and what inspired you to make Luke an army officer?


Thank you, Givemecoffeeplease. I don’t have any military training at all. The cliche about writing is that you should ‘write about what you know’. If that was true, you’d never have adventure or fantasy, because most writers live pretty settled lives bound to a desk. So, I went out and looked for soldiers. I was especially drawn to these Irish soldiers I found in Belfast. One of them had been blown up in Afghanistan and he gave me a lot of insight. These boys have a way of talking that brought me right back to my childhood, among boys. I have three older brothers and I always ran in a group when I was young. So, it came naturally to me, once I knew the military jargon. You have to remember, these soldiers are nearer to being kids than anything else: 18, 19. I always knew my central character would be an army officer because he came to me that way, dressed in uniform, ready with any luck to let me tell a tender story about family and conflict.
AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:09

@LocalEditorMerton

Hi Andrew

As a reader, I felt much more drawn to Luke's storyline than Anne's - was that your intention? For me, it was the insight into life in the British Army on an overseas tour of duty in a war zone - it was eye-opening to say the least! I found I was rooting for him all the way, whereas I didn't warm to Anne (or Alice) at all.

What is your favourite literary depiction of a soldier/war/battle, and why?

And what are you working on next?

Thanks

Kate


Thank you, LocaleditorMerton. I suppose I don’t go along with the idea that characters in novels have to be ‘sympathetic’. Why should people in novels be more sympathetic than people in life? Nearly all my favourite characters in books are flawed people, and I feel for them, sometimes, despite their nature. So I probably agree with you that Anne and Alice are difficult to warm to, though Anne has a kind of delusional charm for me. My favourite depiction of a war is probably in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. I just love the way he evokes both suffering and the hellishness of war by simple means, whilst always leading you towards the centre of these people and their environment. He can write a paragraph about the dust on the leaves and make you feel something essential. That’s writing, and war is not all about clashing swords. Mostly, it’s about waiting.
AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:10

@RoastieToastieReastie

^that is absolutely harrowing about the Afganistan stories. I am just Shock.


I know. I couldn't get over it when he told me. All their stories were like that.
AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:11

@frogletsmum

Hi Andrew

Just wanted to say how much I loved this book, and how it drew me in despite initially thinking I wasn't going to enjoy the army sections at all. You seem to me to be very even-handed and generous with your characters, finding the humanity in everyone, even the less likeable ones such as Alice. I wondered if you have a favourite character in this book or any of your others? And which part of the book did you find easier to write, Anne's story or Luke's?

Big thanks to Mumsnet too for the copy!


Hey Frogletsmum. That’s lovely. My favourite character in the book is probably Maureen, the ‘helpful’ woman next door. I like characters who show more than one side of their nature, and Maureen has more faces than the town clock, as she might say herself. I also feel there is a humour in her that I would appreciate in real life. She tried to gee life along, whilst revealing a lot of intolerance at the same time. As for the two sections of the book, the sheltered housing front and the battlefront, I have to admit they were both equally difficult to do. But in myself I probably felt closer to Anne’s story, the way she is getting forgetful in old age but somehow finding a new horizon in herself. I felt I knew her, though I’ve never known anybody exactly like her. She was with me, and always will be.
whatwoulddexterdo · 27/01/2016 21:11

Hi Andrew,
Thanks so much for coming to mumsnet to talk to us tonight. I loved your book. You write beautifully and I was very moved in places. I would like to ask you about the split narratives. Why did you choose to structure the book in this way? Do you write the characters simultaneously or separately? Also how do you write from a female perspective? I found Anne's and Maureens characters to be very realistic and wonder how you manage to achieve this?
Thanks again and good luck with your future projects.

Corygal1 · 27/01/2016 21:13

Bloody hell, I don't think she's a MNetter.

Hey Andrew - thanks a million for all those Back of the Net Yesssss moments you have produced for so many people, eg me, for years. You are brilliant at Writing Things Down For the First Time. I am properly grateful, so thank you.

Reminds me of Evelyn Waugh a bit. Anyway, how do you decide what bits of now to do - and what do you really want to write about next?

AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:13

@RoastieToastieReastie

currently enjoying the book, Andrew. I particularly like how the characters seem so real. I think everyone has known a Maureen at some point Grin.
I wondered whose story you enjoyed writing the most, Anne's or Lukes's?
I agree with LocalEditor that it was insightful into the army realities and see from your note of thanks at the beginning of the book you've had some help with making it a realistic depiction (I can but assuming as I know nothing about what it would be like).


Thank you so much RoastieToastie. The war scenes were difficult to write and even more difficult (and dangerous!) to research. My daughter made me promise, when I came back, that I would never go anywhere like that again.
Givemecoffeeplease · 27/01/2016 21:14

Thank you. I'd forgotten about I Am David. Must dig it out. If you liked that as a kid, try The Silver Sword by Ian Serailler (might have that spelt wrong) - a fab pre-teens book. ESP relevant as you have an 11 year old DD.

Like others I'm agog at that story of the kid in Afghanistan. Just grim.

AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:16

@gailforce1

Hi Andrew
I would like to ask you about your involvement with the Scottish Book Trust. I have watched the you tube clip but unfortunately the sound level was too low to hear you at the end.
I saw your typewriter and computer - do you type your drafts first then move on to the computer?


The Scottish Book Trust is a wonderful organisation, bringing not only the experience of reading but the VALUE of being a reader to children young and old all round Scotland. It's a country if I can be allowed to say so that has been punching about its weight in terms of literature for 500 years, and that should always be there as an enriching part of every person's life. So, I'm delighted to do what I can for them.
FernieB · 27/01/2016 21:18

Thank you for answering my questions Andrew. Can I also thank you for your pragmatic portrayal of dementia. So often characters with dementia are written as though that is the only aspect of their character, but you made it a small part of the personality.

I also liked Maureen best - I know a few people like her!

AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:19

@Givemecoffeeplease

Another Q from me. Why Blackpool? I've never seen the illuminations, but they are so representative of being around for a long time (Anne), and enchanting for all ages and generations. They are a constant in the book, and will be around long after Anne has gone. A nice motif - what do the illuminations mean to you?


Thank you. I have to tell you, when I was a kid the Blackpool illuminations were the most glamorous thing. Just the idea of them used to make me excited about the prospects that life could hold. And the glamour was a very working-class kind, people working all year and having a fortnight in Blackpool that they'd looked forward to so much. And I guess I grew up with that image -- all my people understood it. And as a novelist the idea of illumination began to connect with all sorts of other things. Sometimes that's what a story is, a journey that a single image take you on. When I was in Afghanistan I understood, seeing the red bullet tracer in the night, how it could lead a young officer back to Blackpool.
AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:21

@BearAusten

I very glad I received a copy of this novel. Otherwise, I would probably have not read it, overlooking it due to the subject matter. Thank you.

I agree with Soupswoops's comments about the different covers of the hardback and paperback. I prefer the ambiguity of the former. Do you have any say about how your work is presented?

Did you decide that Anne would be a 'documentary photographer' before having her grandson, Luke, as a soldier in Afghanistan? I suppose I was thinking about the flash of the camera as opposed to the flashbacks of a 'traumatized mind'/ 'flashes' of lucidity. Ironic, that Luke seeks to forget his past and is grandmother seeks to remember hers.


You're spot on there, BearAusten. I first conceived of it as a a book where a young man was struggling to forget whilst he beloved gran was struggling to remember. It seemed true to my experience. But also, I love family sagas, novels that get underneath the experience of being related to people and inherited so much from them yet fighting to be yourself.
Givemecoffeeplease · 27/01/2016 21:22

Thank you. That image of the bullet tracer is a strong one. My brother never talks of his time in Afghanistan and Iraq. This helps me understand a tiny bit what it was like.

Note to self. Get to Blackpool!

TillyMumsnetBookClub · 27/01/2016 21:22

This is an embarrassingly un-literary question, but I (being a mother of four boys) immediately picked up on your reference to being one of four boys. Do you think your family life and childhood deeply affected the type of writer you became? And if so, can you pinpoint what it gave you, or how it might have helped/hindered you?

OP posts:
AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:24

@AndrewOHagan

[quote BearAusten]
I very glad I received a copy of this novel. Otherwise, I would probably have not read it, overlooking it due to the subject matter. Thank you.

I agree with Soupswoops's comments about the different covers of the hardback and paperback. I prefer the ambiguity of the former. Do you have any say about how your work is presented?

Did you decide that Anne would be a 'documentary photographer' before having her grandson, Luke, as a soldier in Afghanistan? I suppose I was thinking about the flash of the camera as opposed to the flashbacks of a 'traumatized mind'/ 'flashes' of lucidity. Ironic, that Luke seeks to forget his past and is grandmother seeks to remember hers.


You're spot on there, BearAusten. I first conceived of it as a a book where a young man was struggling to forget whilst he beloved gran was struggling to remember. It seemed true to my experience. But also, I love family sagas, novels that get underneath the experience of being related to people and inherited so much from them yet fighting to be yourself.[/quote]

The photography part came quite early. I had heard the story of an elderly lady who died alone in Glasgow -- her name was Margaret Watkins. Her house was full of Victorian trunks and lace, and she told a young neighbour to open the trunks after she died. Turns out she'd only come back to Glasgow in the 1930s from a glittering photographic career in New York because the old aunts were ill, and she tended them. Then she never left. And the trunks contained these masterpieces of photography. The story entered my soul, really, and influenced the whole of The Illuminations.
AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:26

@FernieB

Thank you for answering my questions Andrew. Can I also thank you for your pragmatic portrayal of dementia. So often characters with dementia are written as though that is the only aspect of their character, but you made it a small part of the personality.

I also liked Maureen best - I know a few people like her!


It's interesting, isn't it, FernieB, the way discussions of dementia are often cliched and stuck in a rut about people 'losing themselves'. Sometimes as anyone who's watched a person with such an illness for a long time they can begin to 'find' themselves, or another self, perhaps one that was buried for all those years of being a mother or a sister or a wife. I noticed that during my research and realised it told a different story, and that was the one I wanted to tell.
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