Andrew O’Hagan (2015) The Illuminations.

I didn’t know Andrew O’Hagan had Scottish roots and writes about Scotland. That puts him in the fast-lane of must-read books. The plot for The Illuminations is simple. Anne, aged 82, is losing her marbles. She’s in a sheltered-housing complex in Saltcoats. Her neighbour Maureen, aged 68, keeps an eye out for her. They’re friends, but even Jackie, the warden admits there’s only so much they can do. They’ve taped off Anne’s cooker so she can’t use it, in case she burns herself, but she’ll need more care than they can give.

‘Anne was fine most days, but she was changing. The rules at Lochraza Court stated clearly that any resident incapable of working a kettle would have to be moved to a nursing home…

Anne used to read lots of books. Somebody said that she was a well-known photographer years ago and Maureen could believe it. You know by the way Anne arranged her lamps…She had the kind of rugs you couldn’t buy in Saltcoats.’

O’Hagan uses indirect narration and follows the voice of his character, the nosey neighbour, Maureen, and tells the reader her thoughts (look at those rugs, they’re really something) without the attributable phrase, she thought or felt. The omniscient narrator of nineteenth-century fiction is given short-shrift. Maureen mediates the action, and in a screen-play this would be indicated by a voice-over. But without the limitations of a first-person narrator, who is supposed to be telling the story, because the baton of narration can pass to other characters. The language they use will reflect who they are and what they are.

Captain Luke Campbell, aged 29, is serving with a Scottish regiment in Afghanistan, and he is Anne’s grandson. When the point of view shift to the douchebags he serves with such as teenagers Privates Dooley and Lennox a more humorous tone is adopted. Far from home, the boys don’t talk in complete sentence or use proper English. They talk about their fucken cars and their birds. I’m not sure how true the dialect is, but it seems authentic enough.

Maureen is trying to decipher the mystery that is Anne. And Captain Luke Campbell faces existential problems of what he’s doing with his life and what’s he’s doing in the army, especially since he’s got artistic tendencies and reads books like his gran. His father was an officer killed in Northern Ireland, and he’s not sure if he joined up to prove a point. But he’s little doubt that despite all the government rhetoric of winning hearts and minds, there’s something shameful about being part of an occupying army in Afghanistan. He quotes Kim and Rudyard Kipling’s The Great Game.  

What brings Luke Campbell home to take his gran for one final fling at the Blackpool Illuminations of the title is a war crime. Major Scullion, Luke’s commanding officer, had gone rogue and off-track. While delivering a water turbine he’s organised a trip to see the remains of one of the great ancient civilisations. He’d taken a few of the army boys and Captain Jamal Rashid of the affiliated Afghanistan army to help translate. They’d been stoned by some local kids while attending a wedding and responded by opening fire. Rashid was killed after killing an Ayrshire soldier.  Mass murder was committed.

But under the latest legislation proposed by the Tory government this wouldn’t be a crime. The Geneva Convention null and void. Luke wouldn’t have anything much to worry about. And Major Scullion needn’t face court martial or need to commit suicide.

The commanding officer of C-Company, and his troops, an American Division of the United States army which entered the hamlet of My Lai in Vietnam on the 16th March 1968, on a ‘search and destroy’ mission which killed an estimated 500 women, children and old men, would not be prosecuted for murder. But since they also raped women and girls—before they murdered them—they could be prosecuted for that.  

Fact can be stranger than fiction. Luke, obviously, not a Tory, resigns from the army, as it’s the only honourable thing to do. He helps peace together his gran’s fractured past and bring closure. I must admit dementia scares me more that death. And I have been more forgetful than normal. If I ever say anything good about the Tory Party and the little Trump, Johnson—shoot me. Poor people don’t count.  

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