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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:
atrociouscook · 27/01/2016 21:28

Hi Andrew

Just wondered if, when you were writing this book, you had any particular group of people in mind who would read it? with two completely different stories it was obviously going to appeal to lots of people, but did you think that the Anne story was sufficiently interesting to keep those who perhaps are anti war also involved and ready to invest their time to the end?

AnnaAsh · 27/01/2016 21:28

Hi Andrew, I really enjoyed your book (and the descriptions of some of Anne's photographs made me want to get my camera out again) so thanks from me for coming online to chat. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about what next for your characters at the end of the book, particularly Luke. It felt like he'd come to a real crossroads and although he was focused on family but I wondered where would he go from here with the rest of his life after such a dramatic end to his army career.... Any thoughts?

AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:30

@whatwoulddexterdo

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.


Thank you, whatwoulddexterdo. It's such a pleasure, a very real one, to have such kind, sensitive and intelligent! readers. I'm always amazed when I hear male writers say they can't write women, or female writers saying they can't write men. Think! Observe! Imagine! Remember! We each come from a man and a woman; most of know at least one of each from a young age; we contained within ourselves a quantity of gendered instincts. I know it's odd, but I hear women's voices as much as I do men's, and I am a man, last time I checked!
FernieB · 27/01/2016 21:30

Just had a quick google of Margaret Watkins - I'd not heard of her before. What a remarkable woman to give up her career to be a carer. You obviously find inspiration in many places. Can you give any clues as to what your latest inspiration has been and what you're currently working on?

AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:31

@Givemecoffeeplease

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!


There should be a bus-run, as they're called by people in Scotland. A Mumsnet bus-run to Blackpool. How about it, Tilly?
gailforce1 · 27/01/2016 21:33

Thank you Andrew, can you recommend any young Scottish authors we should be looking out for?

frogletsmum · 27/01/2016 21:33

Thanks for answering my question, Andrew. I loved Maureen too. And I have a mother who has fairly advanced dementia, and has also (it seems to me) spent her life as a bit of a fantasist. It's a tricky combination to come to terms with so I really felt some empathy with Alice, and I liked the way you showed her perspective too.

I tend to avoid books about dementia but I found this one so moving and thoughtful. I finished it on my way to work this morning and was welling up on the Tube Blush

AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:33

@atrociouscook

Hi Andrew

Just wondered if, when you were writing this book, you had any particular group of people in mind who would read it? with two completely different stories it was obviously going to appeal to lots of people, but did you think that the Anne story was sufficiently interesting to keep those who perhaps are anti war also involved and ready to invest their time to the end?


Hi there. It's always a risk, atrociouscook, to be honest. But you have to be brave and ambitious about bringing the readers along with you. Tolstoy's great novel, remember is called War AND Peace, and he trusted that a generation of Russian readers would come along with him, to the sordid battlefront and to the salons of St Petersburg, and that they would appreciate the bigness and strangeness of the world and its characters.
BearAusten · 27/01/2016 21:35

I understand what you mean about the 'glamour' of the illuminations for certain people. My grandmother loved them.

Your comments about the young jihadis feels me with sadness. 'Horror, horror' (Heart of Darkness) comes to mind. Were you at all influenced by 'Apolcapse Now' when writing this novel?

Thank you for answering my questions. Margaret Watkins was quite an imposing woman by the look of her. I just googled her.

AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:37

@AnnaAsh

Hi Andrew, I really enjoyed your book (and the descriptions of some of Anne's photographs made me want to get my camera out again) so thanks from me for coming online to chat. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about what next for your characters at the end of the book, particularly Luke. It felt like he'd come to a real crossroads and although he was focused on family but I wondered where would he go from here with the rest of his life after such a dramatic end to his army career.... Any thoughts?


Thank you so much Anna. It's always a very odd thing for a novelist to think about -- what his or her characters will do after the book ends. I've often had schoolkids tell me what the characters are doing now, often very imaginative the outcomes are too! For Luke, I imagined him meeting someone and falling in love, being saved by somebody else's experience of the world, which is partly what love is about, I think. Luke comes to the end of the book having learned how to live, I feel, and how to love, I hope.
AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:38

@FernieB

Just had a quick google of Margaret Watkins - I'd not heard of her before. What a remarkable woman to give up her career to be a carer. You obviously find inspiration in many places. Can you give any clues as to what your latest inspiration has been and what you're currently working on?


I'm presently working on two films that are being produced. A very different discipline, but lovely to see them coming together. The Illuminations is being produced as a series by the BBC, but I decided not to try writing that. I felt the characters were too close to me now.
AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:40

@FernieB

Just had a quick google of Margaret Watkins - I'd not heard of her before. What a remarkable woman to give up her career to be a carer. You obviously find inspiration in many places. Can you give any clues as to what your latest inspiration has been and what you're currently working on?


I'm also working on a secret book project. It's like working for M15 my secret might go to the grave with me but I was approached by mystery man who is changing the world. Can't say any more! tease
FernieB · 27/01/2016 21:43

Thanks Andrew. I shall look forward to watching The Illuminations when it appears on our screens.

A couple more questions (sorry to bombard you). Is writing for a film easier/faster than writing a novel? And where and how do you write?

AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:44

@gailforce1

Thank you Andrew, can you recommend any young Scottish authors we should be looking out for?


I think Alan Warner is fantastic. And Ali Smith. But they're my age. I'm not sure who the properly young ones are at the moment.
TillyMumsnetBookClub · 27/01/2016 21:44

Absolutely agree with the idea that the forgetting can be a release from certain roles as well as an opportunity to find a new self. I loved that aspect of the book, it felt very true and fresh.

I'd like to put one more question in (but no worries if no time to answer). I read your wonderful article in the Guardian about poetry, poets and landscape. Do you feel the Scottish landscape is your 'place', the one that informs what you do? Or have you found other places on your many travels?

OP posts:
AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:45

@frogletsmum

Thanks for answering my question, Andrew. I loved Maureen too. And I have a mother who has fairly advanced dementia, and has also (it seems to me) spent her life as a bit of a fantasist. It's a tricky combination to come to terms with so I really felt some empathy with Alice, and I liked the way you showed her perspective too.

I tend to avoid books about dementia but I found this one so moving and thoughtful. I finished it on my way to work this morning and was welling up on the Tube Blush


I'm glad you say that of Alice, frogletsmum. She has had such a raw deal with the charismatic, talented, and deluded Anne for a mother, and I think she is on a journey herself to accept her lot. My instinct was to give everybody in the story their due, or to find a way for the reader to.
Corygal1 · 27/01/2016 21:46

Yay to MIBooks! Are you going to be the sort of author one has to meet at a Happy Eater at 3am on the A68?

Please say yes - there's a lot to be said for their fried mushrooms...

Oh, I did actually work in this sort of publishing (and anyone who asked to meet in a layby was told not to be a twat, incidentally.)

RachelMumsnet · 27/01/2016 21:47

Hi Andrew, thanks so much for joining us. I really enjoyed The Illuminations and as I hadn't read any of your earlier novels, decided to read Personality. As a child of the 70s, Opportunity Knocks was regular Monday night viewing and I remember being equally charmed and slightly freaked out by the voice of Lena Zavaroni. I am really interested to know what made you write this book, how much of is was fact/fiction and also keen to learn about the Arandora Star. I found this part of the story fascinating - Was this really part of her past? Hope you don't mind me asking you a question about one of your earlier novels.

TillyMumsnetBookClub · 27/01/2016 21:48

And YES to a Mumsnet Blackpool bus-run. My grandma took us every year to the Bournemouth Winter Garden illuminations, but I suspect they're not a patch on Blackpool's.

OP posts:
AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:48

@BearAusten

I understand what you mean about the 'glamour' of the illuminations for certain people. My grandmother loved them.

Your comments about the young jihadis feels me with sadness. 'Horror, horror' (Heart of Darkness) comes to mind. Were you at all influenced by 'Apolcapse Now' when writing this novel?

Thank you for answering my questions. Margaret Watkins was quite an imposing woman by the look of her. I just googled her.


Yes, indeed. She was quite a woman, Margaret Watkins, but an unsung hero, a woman ahead of her time. I greatly admire the dark beauty of Apocalypse Now but it wasn't on my mind, I don't think. The horror is mainly off-stage in the book, and I mainly interested in the soldiers experience when they weren't fighting. But those children I mentioned: they made me feel there were evil forces in the world that I couldn't even comprehend.
AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:51

@FernieB

Thanks Andrew. I shall look forward to watching The Illuminations when it appears on our screens.

A couple more questions (sorry to bombard you). Is writing for a film easier/faster than writing a novel? And where and how do you write?


My friend Colm Toibin once said that writing plays, for a novelist, was easy, because you just put down the dialogue and left all the hard bits out. That made me laugh. But it isn't true. Writing a screenplay is tough because everything has to happen through the dialogue. You can't journey through a person's mind. Take, for instance, my opening to The Illuminations. Maureen wakes up in bed thinking things, remembering her father, a journey she once made, and she is talking to herself. How do you do that onscreen? She can mutter a bit, but how do we get the quality of her thinking? They will find a way, but you see the challenges.
AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:53

@Corygal1

Yay to MIBooks! Are you going to be the sort of author one has to meet at a Happy Eater at 3am on the A68?

Please say yes - there's a lot to be said for their fried mushrooms...

Oh, I did actually work in this sort of publishing (and anyone who asked to meet in a layby was told not to be a twat, incidentally.)


What's a Happy Eater? Is it a Little Chef for ravers?
AndrewOHagan · 27/01/2016 21:54

@FernieB

Thanks Andrew. I shall look forward to watching The Illuminations when it appears on our screens.

A couple more questions (sorry to bombard you). Is writing for a film easier/faster than writing a novel? And where and how do you write?


You asked about where and how? I keep more than one office, and I keep more than one keyboard. I like to write fiction and non-fiction/essays/journalism on different computers. Is that weird? I'll explain why if you can be bothered.
Corygal1 · 27/01/2016 21:54

Joyce's only play, Exiles, is the opposite of that - it's virtually all stage directions. He admitted it didn't work & got a mood on when anyone mentioned it. Mind you, no one in Joyce gets to talk except Joyce.

Corygal1 · 27/01/2016 21:56

Yes, it's a Little Chef but I think they're only in England - lost in translation, sorry. Just go, you'll love it.

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