Anyone who remembers 1970s Scotland will remember Lena Zavaroni. She was a child star, a talent show winner, from a small Scottish island and seaside resort, who developed depression and anorexia as a teenager and died young.
Andrew O'Hagan's novel is a thinly veiled fictionalisation of her life. I remember thinking, when the book came out in 2003, that t was an odd choice from a well respected writer of literary fiction. I picked it up in a charity shop recently. I was drawn to it because of a bit of a personal connection: one of my university friends knew her from school, and a good friend of mine recently moved to the Isle of Bute and bought Lena's auntie's flat. That was enough to draw me towards a book which I had previously resisted.
As a novel, it works well. It's told in a fragmented way, through a number of voices. There are third person sections about central character, Maria, and first person sections from a variety of characters: her mum, the talent show host, her agent etc. There are sections in the form of letters between Maria and her childhood friend, some letters from a fan, and sections written as dramascript. What we never actually get is Maria's own voice, and I've only just realised that. It made me think about whose voices are heard: so many people in the novel, not just Maria, are never really allowed to be heard (which is ironic, since everyone in the country heard her.)
The novel closely follows what we know about the real person: even small details, like being arrested for shoplifting a packet of jelly, are included, which seemed odd to me. I don't know whether aspects of her relationships are imagined and invented. I would hope so. (We can tell that at least one has poetic licence.) There's an interesting subplot about her family history, as an Italian family during WW2.
Overall, although I admired the writing and the artistry, I was more affected by the human tragedy, knowing that this actually happened pretty much as described. I'd like to know more about O'Hagan's motivation in choosing this as a subject and sticking so closely to details. It would have been far easier to pick a different TV show, a different background, and not make it so blatantly about a real person.
The Illuminations feels like two short novellas that have been interleaved, presumably in an effort to add bulk.
On the one hand, we have Anne, an elderly mother who is succumbing slowly to dementia. Her family knows that she had lived in the United States and England before settling down in Ayrshire, but as her recent memories fade, she exposes the hints of old secrets.
And on the other hand, there’s the story of Luke, a soldier stationed in Afghanistan, witnessing brutality and betrayal – then failing to adjust to life back home. Luke is Anne’s grandson.
Of the two stories, Anne’s is more intriguing, but perhaps promises more than it delivers. The denouement in Blackpool (hence The Illuminations) feels contrived and when the secrets are revealed, the biggest mystery is why they were ever secret to start with. Luke’s story is pretty standard Afghan fare that is doing the rounds at the moment; others have done it in more depth and, perhaps, with more credibility. The characters in Luke’s story seem a bit cartoonish; the events a bit too much like a reheating of news headlines. It may be readable (actually, it zips along), but it doesn’t seem to add much to the canon.
The real sticking point, though, is that the two stories never cohere into a whole; but neither do they offer any real counterpoint to one another. They are just two separate stories, with a familial relationship built in as a framing device to justify their inclusion within the same covers.
The end result is a short, readable novel but one which won’t offer much insight into the human condition; won’t wow anyone with its beauty; won’t impress anyone with its skill; and won’t provoke strong feeling towards its characters. Graham Greene divided his novels into “serious literature” and lighter “entertainments”. Were Andrew O’Hagan to do the same, I suspect The Illuminations would be in the entertainments category.
Truly, this novel doesn’t work. Please don’t waste time and money on it as it is a complete dullfest.
The basic premise is that little lapdog Mafia Honey (aka Maf) was bought by Frank Sinatra as a gift for Marilyn Monroe. This gives Maf special access to the world of celebs to report as a fly on the wall – or a dog on the floor. The trouble is, Maf is a boring dog who witters incessantly about other dogs (famous dogs and dogs of famous people), philosophy and cats. The narrative veers alarmingly from being totally dog focussed to anthropomorphism in excelsis. How are dogs supposed to read philosophy? How are dogs supposed to learn history? It could be cute, but it becomes longwinded, pretentious and dull.
As for the bits that deal with the celebrities, mostly it is just straight reportage of dull people (few of whom ring any bells with this middle aged reader) meeting other dull people and having dull conversations. Nobody actually does anything or says anything interesting. There’s no plot, just name dropping. Even in the last years of Marilyn’s life there is no feeling of climax – it is impossible to see the passage of time. The conversations in the novel might have taken place over a few days, a few weeks or many months.
Oh, and then there are the bits where the famous people interact with Maf. Except the humans can’t understand dogs – it’s only dogs who can understand the humans. Every few pages we are reminded of this as the famous people mistake Maf’s inane conversation for inane barking. Of course, if dogs were really much brighter than people I doubt they would be so servile. Or perhaps this is Andrew O’Hagan’s message laid on with a trowel: that in worshipping celebrities, people are no better than lapdogs. But exposing the whole thing as hollow just leaves you with a hollow read.
So, a couple of ideas, many words and a guided tour of Andrew O’Hagan’s creaking bookshelf and head full of yesterday’s celebrities. It’s so booooooring.
If that isn’t enough to warn you off, the cover ought to be the clincher. It is coated in some kind of wax to give it a greasy feel. I think it is aiming for a silky texture like the blue silk it depicts – but it really doesn’t work.
I am in the middle of this book just now and thought I remembered someone on BGO reading it and posting a review, but after a Google search I can only find it in reference to the Booker 2006. Am I mistaken? I just wanted to see what was said about it because I am enjoying it so much.
I will post a proper review of it once finished on this thread.