February 26, 2016

By Dani Shapiro, 13 Mar 2015

The literature of war is by its very nature political. If a writer’s sentences are ­personal — what else, really, can they be? — and a writer has trained his lens on a bloody battleground, in reading him we will come to know where he stands, where his passions lie. When it comes to fiction, this passion can often result in ­rhetoric-spouting characters whose sole purpose is to service the author’s ideas. But in “The Illuminations,” the Scottish novelist and critic Andrew O’Hagan has created a story that is both a howl against the war in Afghanistan and the societies that have blindly abetted it, and a multilayered, deeply felt tale of family, loss, memory, art, loyalty, secrecy and forgiveness.

Luke Campbell is a captain in the First Royal Western Fusiliers, a regiment of Irish, Scottish and English young men on a ­humanitarian mission, one that his commanding officer, Scullion, calls potentially “the biggest logistical task of the war.” Luke’s “a bit of a thinker,” and in the midst of the mayhem his mind drifts back to an earlier, more innocent time, feeling “the pressure of his younger self, the one . . . in touch with beautiful ideas. Back then, Luke often walked through Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow to spend the day with his gran. Anne was a woman who lived quietly and knew how to disappear into her own experience. . . . Even when speaking to a boy she spoke as a person not only ready to invest in you but ready to bear the costs to the end.”

Luke’s Afghan mission alternates with the story of this grandmother, a once well-known photographer named Anne Quirk, who is indeed disappearing into her own experience. At the sheltered housing complex Lochranza Court in Saltcoats on Scotland’s coast, where Anne lives, the rules are that “any resident incapable of working a kettle would have to be moved to a nursing home.” But the onset of Anne’s dementia is different — “She appeared to be trying to climb out of herself before it was too late,” and she’s kept going by her next-door neighbor Maureen, a deliciously complex busybody who recognizes that there “was clearly a part of Anne’s life that was off limits or stuck in the past, but the dementia was bringing it out.”