The Illuminations focuses on Anne Quirk, an 82 year old facing the onset of dementia. She lives in sheltered housing, and her neighbour, Maureen, assists her as best she can, trying to delay the inevitable move into a care home. In her youth, Anne was a talented photographer, and has various photos dotted around that hint at her past.
She is close to her grandson, Luke, who is currently serving in Afghanistan. The novel initially alternates between their two stories, until Luke returns home, disillusioned with army life, and begins to unravel Anne’s past.
The book was difficult to get into, and I didn’t care enough about the characters to be interested in what happened to them. It’s told in a disjointed fashion from multiple points of view. At first I thought that this was to reflect Anne’s dementia – she makes various unconnected comments about people and events from her past as something triggers a memory, but the whole novel was like that, not just those sections focussing on Anne. Whilst the storyline becomes clearer in the second half of the novel and the various threads are tied together, this fragmentary structure didn’t improve at all.
Additionally, I didn’t really understand the relevance of Luke’s army experience in this – I was waiting for a connection to Anne’s past life that would bring the two elements of the novel together, but it never happened for me.
This is a novel teeming with dysfunctional families. Anne and her daughter, Alice, don’t get on particularly well, with the latter seeming to feel a great deal of resentment towards her mother. Similarly, Luke seems to feel a rift between himself and his mother, although he and Anne are much closer. Even Maureen’s family was brought into the mix, and there’s a painful scene (for both the reader and the characters involved) where her children and grandchildren visit. Again, I didn’t see the point of this – it didn’t add to the story in any way. I didn’t think that Maureen’s character needed to be expanded at all – I was quite happy with her sitting on the sidelines as someone who’s helping Anne with day-to-day tasks in the absence of anyone else.
I think that the point of this novel passed me by – the premise sounded interesting, but the story just didn’t grab with me. I read it because it’s on the long list for the 2015 Man Booker Prize and because it is relatively short – I think that I would have given up on it otherwise, something that I don’t do lightly.