Book reviews: The Illuminations | Mr & Mrs Disraeli

A soldier signals to a Lynx helicopter pilot in the murk of a Helmand dawn. Picture: TSPL

A soldier signals to a Lynx helicopter pilot in the murk of a Helmand dawn. Picture: TSPL

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ANDREW O’Hagan’s latest novel falls somewhat short of its dazzling ambition, writes David Robinson

THE ILLUMINATIONS

by Andrew O’Hagan

Faber, 304pp, £17.99

Andrew O’Hagan,” Norman Mailer once observed, “can write like an angel”. That ‘s still true. And whether in fiction or non-fiction, he can write like the kind of angel who will also do so on subjects where others fear to tread. I don’t need to wind back the years to his stellar debut and to trace the books in which he established his reputation to make that point: all you have to do is to look at his last three major projects. An elegaic portrait of a more innocent America as told by a pedigree dog given by Frank Sinatra to Marilyn Monroe, an abortive (as it turned out) ghost-written biography of Julian Assange, and a play on the crisis in newspapers assembled from interviews with journalists: who else could tackle any of that?

So here he is, that most original and unpredictable of all the Scottish writing angels, with his fifth novel, and you know from the start that he’s not just aiming to illuminate a small corner of the world. The book opens with a 60-year-old Saltcoats woman looking after her elderly neighbour Anne, who is starting to lose her mind to Alzheimer’s, yet just as you’re beginning to think that O’Hagan has hemmed himself in too tightly, he starts to open up the novel, plotting paths out into the hazy past and the even more confusing present. Although she is now barely aware of the fact, in the 1960s Anne was making a name for herself as a social realist photographer. Her beloved grandson Luke, serving as an Army captain in Afghanistan, begins to find this out when he returns in disgrace after his mission in Helmand has gone appallingly wrong. Luke wonders why his grandmother gave up her promising career, and finds out enough to know that the answers lie in Blackpool, where she used to live and work. He’ll take her back there, he decides. Even with her shattered mind, there might be some shard of explanation.

Essentially then, there are two stories going on here – the horrors of Helmand and the quiet desperation of a closing-down life in Saltcoats. Hovering behind them is a third, about resolving deep-buried family secrets and the redemptive power of art. But even though the contrast between Anne’s fragmenting world and the deliberateness of the fighting in Afghanistan (complete with ultra-credible squaddie banter) is an impressive demonstration of O’Hagan’s novelistic range, and even though he stays well clear of the sentimentality that could so easily wreck the finale, the links between the two basic types of novel just aren’t strong enough to support its core.

The problem lies with Anne. Once O’Hagan decided not to narrate her story in the first person (Alzheimer’s-affected narrative being what it is), he has to tell it using her neighbour, Maureen. Yet when Radio 4 get round to adapting The Illuminations – and quite definitely if it is ever filmed – I predict that most of Maureen’s scenes will end up on the cutting-room floor. So will a good half of those with Anne’s daughter Alice.

Why? It’s not as though third-person narration automatically precludes dealing empathetically with a central character who has Alzheimer’s: Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, also published next week, does this quite effortlessly. The difference is that whereas Tyler shows, O’Hagan tells. This even happens with Luke, who is otherwise cleverly and convincingly drawn, both in Afghanistan and on his return to Scotland. “Anne was a woman who lived quietly and who knew how to disappear into her own experience,” he muses in Helmand. “Even when speaking to a boy, she spoke as a person not only ready to invest in you but ready to bear any costs to the end… He realised her quest had long since become part of who he was himself. It was inside him. He didn’t yet know what her quest was...” For a start, it’s surely Gran, not Anne, and it’s a blue pencil through the rest.

Such a rush to abstractions is often the sign of an author who hasn’t completely imagined his characters. And while one must accept that family life is complex and not always consistent, it is at least odd that Alice can complain that she never, “even for half an hour”, saw her mother’s creative side, or that Maureen can be both depressed and happy with her life, or indeed that such a free-spirited woman as Anne should be so devoted to the charlatan who was the love of her life.

I suppose all that can happen. But one central scene in the book left me completely puzzled. It involves a crash which is caused at night when the driver of a car has spotted a rabbit on the road and turns off his headlights so his passengers can see it better. Another car then crashes into their, now lightless, car. Isn’t this illogical? If one can see the rabbit without headlights, wouldn’t the driver of the car with the headlights also be able to see the car without them?

These might seem like minor quibbles, and indeed they are when measured against O’Hagan’s phenomenal range as a novelist. Certainly too the Helmand scenes are phenomenal, and convey the psychic damage of modern warfare on those who wage it with searing credibility, and the finale is both moving and restrained, and – let there be no doubt at all – very angelic indeed.

MR & MRS DISRAELI: A STRANGE ROMANCE

By Daisy Hay

Chatto & Windus, 320pp, £20

The night Mary Anne Disraeli gave her husband a Fortnum & Mason pie and bottle of bubbly, he told her: “You are more like a mistress than a wife.” She might have gasped on finding him so chipper, had it not been for the fact that he was celebrating the passage of the ground-breaking Reform Act of 1867, which enfranchised a million working-class men. It wouldn’t be long before he became their Prime Minister.

Benjamin Disraeli’s marriage, the subject of Daisy Hay’s erudite yet enchanting new book, paved the way to his premiership. The aspiring Tory leader converted from Judaism to Christianity at the age of 13 (as a Jew he would not then have been able to sit in the House of Commons) but struggled to gain social acceptance until he wed and set up home with Mary Anne Evans at fashionable Grosvenor Gate. It’s blissful to imagine the glittering parties he hosted there for the lords and backbenchers as he eased himself into the society from which his birth had barred him. His wife was kind enough to foot the bills.

Hay paints a colourful portrait of Mrs Disraeli, a sailor’s daughter with spaniel-like curls and loose tongue who found wealth through her first marriage to Wyndham Lewis (the politician, not the writer and Vorticist). While Mary Anne seldom skimped on ostentation, Lewis was so careful with money that he had been known to rent his daily papers. It was no surprise to anybody that he left her a sizeable fortune when he died of a heart attack in 1838.

But money bought complications. One of the most intriguing letters Hay brings to light in her book (and she uncovers hundreds) has to be the missive in which Disraeli claims that Mary Anne’s fortune “proved to be much less than I, or the world, imagined”.

He had met her the previous year, when he stood alongside her husband for the constituency of Maidstone, Kent. Though taken with her – “a pretty little woman, a flirt and a rattle” – Disraeli was clearly at pains to convince her that her money had no bearing on his affections.

His only solution was to woo her with words. At the heart of Hay’s book we witness the burgeoning lovers becoming characters in a fiction of the kind Disraeli wrote in his spare time. Mary Anne, it transpires, had always had a soft spot for his first society novel, Vivian Grey.

Though Hay is anxious to separate fact from fiction, reality from “Tall Tales” (the title of her second chapter), her book is at its most marvellous when she draws on contemporary fiction to contextualise the Disraeli marriage: she is excellent at showing how Disraeli modelled himself on Lord Byron, and how his correspondence with Mary Anne evoked the popular novels of the day.

Important political events in Disraeli’s life, such as his role in bringing down Tory premier Robert Peel over the repeal of the Corn Laws, get short shrift, but there is no shortage of political biographies of the Tory leader; Hay has carved out her own corner amid their private correspondence, and with it enthralls.

No simple romance, theirs: Mary Anne put up with the affairs “dear Dizzy” almost certainly had with young men, including the son of the Duke of Richmond, and participated in a bizarre charade in which Disraeli posed in letters as her child (she was 12 years his senior).

And yet, it worked. What started as a man’s infatuation with a wealthy widow became a companionship worthy of Queen Victoria’s admiration.

DAISY DUNN

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