The Scottish author’s fifth novel (The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe, 2010, etc.) is a lean yet rich family story built of small and crucial moments in memories and reality across three generations.
Anne, at 82, has come to a kind of assisted living facility on Scotland’s west coast, and her memory has begun drifting. Often she returns to a time in the 1950s when she was a talented photographer and had a child with another shutterbug. When her grandson, Luke, a British army captain fighting in the Afghanistan campaign of recent years, enters the narrative, it shifts from homey prose snapshots to harsh newsreel realism. The contrast recalls a long article by O'Hagan, also a well-regarded essayist, that looks at deaths in the Iraqi campaign and those affected at home; titled “Brothers,” it’s among the collected nonfiction in The Atlantic Ocean (2013). Anne and Luke have always been close, and he returns after a nightmarish ambush in Afghanistan to help her in the transition to a nursing home. In the process, he discovers long-concealed secrets and sadness tied to another coastal town, Blackpool, which is famous for the annual lighting ceremony that gives the book the literal stratum of its many-layered title. Family pain comes in many forms, including the exclusion Luke’s mother feels from the special tie he has with Anne, the very mixed feelings of Anne’s ever helpful neighbor toward her own brood when they visit the facility—even Luke’s father-brother relations with his fellow soldiers. The story is ripe for sentimentality, but there’s a journalistic cast to the spare prose and tight dialogue that helps O’Hagan almost always avoid it.
It's remarkable how much human territory O’Hagan explores and illuminates with a restrained style that also helps drive the novel along at a good clip.