Andrew O'Hagan's hypnotic new novel begins with a rabbit. Ceramic, "six inches tall with green eyes and crumbs of bread at its feet," it sits on the kitchen counter in the Scottish assisted-living complex where Anne Quick, an 82-year-old former documentary photographer slipping in and out of dementia, now lives, after spending part of her life in Canada. It also runs around in the snow and requires feeding.
Like Lewis Carroll's white hare, this one leads us down the hole into a kind of light madness, where, in Anne's mind, the dead come and go, children grow up and down, and the past and present collide. And much like Anne's mind, The Illuminations doesn't exactly follow a plumb line: It shifts in time, perspective and place. But it's occasionally lit up with a flash that makes the pieces of Anne's story clear. It's worth the trip into the dark.
The rabbit is a cipher, as is Anne. She is mysterious, hard to reach, ensnared in the past and partly unknowable to the people around her. O'Hagan's layered portrait of Maureen, her lonely neighbour, who is struggling to help and so fulfill her own sharp need for love, is superb. He also captures Alice, Anne's middle-aged daughter, clearly. Alice is similar to Maureen in her grim desperation for connection. And like her namesake in Wonderland, she is bewildered by the older generation's inaccessibility. O'Hagan's approach to his characters is photographic. He documents their flaws realistically, without judgment, capturing them from inside and out to create a broad picture.
Luke, Anne's grandson, is the novel's other major character. Trying to follow in his soldier father's footsteps, he falls down a hole of his own while fighting in Afghanistan. Sweltering, deadened and questioning, Luke finds himself sleepwalking through war. Life, to many of the young soldiers there, is like a drugged haze, or a pale version of one of the video games they love to play back home. The scenes of both boredom and battle are intense and uncanny. Reality isn't what they want it to be. War "didn't feel real," says one soldier after returning home. This section of the novel, full of strife and violence, is a surface contrast to Anne's still existence. But it creates a fearful symmetry, showing that the world we create in our minds is often as real as our actual lives, and that neither is particularly straightforward.
O'Hagan's style is scrupulous. The book reads as spare, despite his astonishing ability to create a cast of rounded, credible voices, from earnest care-home workers to rough young squaddies. (His infamous London Review of Books article about trying to ghostwrite Julian Assange's autobiography shows how it's done.) This book, like his others, snaps with life.
The novel's structure is also a testament to his skill. The Illuminations could easily feel loose, given its subject and its changes in perspective and setting, but O'Hagan keeps the story clearly visible by building it in short sections. The simple titles of these sections act as signposts: "Neighbours," Holidays" and so on. In "Sheila," the name of one of his grandmother's old friends, Luke goes through Anne's filed-away letters and photographs. This depiction is beautiful, and more of Anne's magical everyday images, like the one of a shining sink full of dishes, would have been welcome. In fact, the novel has a feel of just such a hidden box of documents and memories. "Life had been rearranged, and always is," the author tells us. It asks us to arrange its pieces into a whole, as Luke does, figuring out Anne's secrets and surprises.
At one point in the novel, Luke takes Anne on a trip to Blackpool, home to some of her happiest memories. Though this English seaside resort town is now a bit of a relic, O'Hagan uses the trip to weld the past to the present. Old people in old suits watch young women drink and dance with Luke at a crumbling hotel. A young man insists Anne take a drink of his cider as they wait for the city's famous lights to be turned on. And when the bulbs are switched on, long strings of them stretch out, illuminating points all across the darkness. The light might be artificial and incomplete, but it shows us the pieces of what we have, and what we can make from them. Like Virginia Woolf's lighthouse beam sweeping across the dark bay, O'Hagan's illuminations are searing. Follow the rabbit to see.
Alix Hawley is the author of All True Not a Lie in It, Knopf's New Face of Fiction pick for 2015.