I’ve recently started a book club. It’s given me an occasion to talk to my mum, J., about the book club she’s been a part of for the past 30+ years (how long?). She was giving me advice (solicited, this time) on how her book club operates. They each rate the book, but with the rule (enforced?) that the rating cannot take into account the balance of “well, I found the book beautiful, *but* it just didn’t resonate with me.” That is to say, the rating has to be on your overall impression of the book in ways that don’t allow for separating out the well-crafted sentence from the one that moves you.
This blog sometimes feels to me like this kind of exercise in declaring my overall impression of a book. And in the case of Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations I find it difficult to do so. I didn’t like the book – I’ll come right out with that – but not for any reason I can find to pin down. It’s beautifully written. It addresses complex and nuanced questions about nationalism, identity, memory, gender and maternity. It focuses on provocative settings: the 2001- war in Afghanistan (how do Western soldiers understand their involvement – as a game? a proxy? What counts as “real” violence?), a retirement home (what are the limits of independence and community? what do we owe our parents and what do they owe us?) and the remembered – or misremembered – scenes of an aging woman with dementia (what can she know about her own life? how is her identity reconstituted by those who know her now – and then?).
I wonder if my own over-attachment to character is what gets in the way the novel resonating with me. I say that because the novel shares the focus on the characters (the soldier, the grandmother, the children, the neighbours). And so while complex, human and empathetic, I found myself at a loss to work out who I was best meant to identify and attach to, who I was meant to care about their conflict and change. I suppose a different reader (a better reader?) might be able to see this richness in character as an opportunity – all the more to engage with! – rather than a drawback.
But according to the rules of book club, at least J’s book club, I have to say that I didn’t like the book.
One final note to end on: I love reading the acknowledgement sections of any novel. I like imagining how the novel I’ve just read was built and shared by a community of people. On occasion I recognize names in the sort of recognize a who’s-who. So when I read in the plot of the novel a reference to the university I attended, I imagined while reading who I might know who had come into contact with the characters (or author). Delight then, in reading in the acknowledgements that one of my favourite, certainly most influential, professors M. was in the acknowledgements. I suppose I should be surprised – the feminist elements, focus on photography, interest in the every day should have given me the clues as I was reading. But there you go. So hooray to M. for her involvement in this beautiful book. That I just happened to not like very much.