"They have a profound sense of death and terror" - Andrew O'Hagan

Susan Cahill looks back on her interviews with Dublin born Joseph O'Neill and Scottish author Andrew O'Hagan

"They have a profound sense of death and terror" - Andrew O'Hagan

An American soldier is comforted while a corpsman fills out casualty reports in Korea, 1950

Award-winning Scottish author Andrew O'Hagan put trauma and memory at the center of his latest novel, The Illuminations. The story revolves around Anne, an elderly woman whose memories are slipping away, and her grandson Luke, who's dealing with the trauma of surviving the battlefields of Afghan. In looking at these hidden members of society Andrew explores our morality and how we deal with those who don't quite fit in.

A once celebrated documentary maker Anne now lives in relative obscurity. Age has wrecked havoc on her memory and she is reliant on others to care for her. Yet Andrew refuses to paint her as a cliche of suffering. Where her memory is failing Anne is able to rediscover herself and her past through photographs and other cues.

One of the memories ignites a desire in Anne to venture to Blackpool. Almost consumed by the emotional pull of this city Anne's neighbour, the caring and sometimes over-involved Maureen, is torn between sheltering Anne or following her to Blackpool. While memory forms the focal point of Anne's character and story, she is not tied to her past or limited to her mental illness.

In the same way her grandson, Luke, is always more than the traumas he suffered.

A young captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers, Luke is recently returned from a tour of Afghanistan. Contrasted with his grandmother's desire to remember Luke is eager to forget what he saw and experienced there.

In his depiction of Luke and the veterans' burden Andrew offers a masterclass in empathetic research. You can almost see the time he spent with serving and returned soldiers in Andrew’s description of life on the frontline and at home. Surrounded by his comrades Luke’s life is loud, fast paced, and laced through with foul mouthed banter.

Life at home is entirely different though. Andrew manages to capture this radical change in life and temperament very well. The Illuminations acts as a critique of society's’ inability to accommodate those soldiers who return changed by war. Speaking about the frontline experiences of soldiers Andrew noted that: "We've not got a very good system for understanding what it's like to live beyond those terrible events".

When Luke and Anne reunite it is as a young man trying to forget and an old woman trying to remember. Setting off for Blackpool together the two begin their own journeys of healing and reconciliation. The Illuminations stands not only as a great story but also a strong reflection on society and how we handle memory and trauma.

Talking Books’ host Susan Cahill spoke with Andrew earlier this year at the Mountains to the Sea book festival about Anne and Luke’s stories and what it was like researching and writing them. You can hear her revisit this interview here.

Before this Susan takes a look back on her interview with Dublin born novelist and writer Joseph O’Neill about his latest novel, The Dog, and its exploration of the life of Dubai’s super-rich and those who serve them.

This week's music to read to

This first part of this week's show opens with Saimonse's Without You I am Nothing before closing with Anouar Brahem's The Lover of Beirut. The show ends with By Night by Sophie Hutchings.