This 2006 novel is this reader’s first by Andrew O’Hagan. Hopefully it will not be the last. Essentially it is a three-parter; the first two sections building to a shattering finale in the last. By the time that presents itself I had succumbed to being so hooked it was unputdownable until the whole sorry story had played out to the last page.
Glaswegian AO’H was born in 1968 and is a graduate of the University of Strathclyde. By ’91 he was on the staff of the ‘London Review of Books’ and four years later published his first fiction product, ‘The Missing’. It and subsequent tomes have been nominated for all sorts of gongs including the Booker and Whitbread. This work won the Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction in 2008. ‘Be Near Me’ has also been adapted as a play. O’Hagan has written and presented a television series on Bobbie Burns for the Beeb and has dabbled in writing for the stage. This guy has serious literary chops.
In the first part of ‘Be Near Me’ the scene is set. We meet 56 year old Catholic priest David Anderton, newly transferred to a tough Ayrshire parish, but we find he is half-hearted and somewhat removed from his duties. He seems disappointed in his calling but unable to release his mind from the need to be succoured by the church. Anderton has the necessary feeling for his flock, but struggles to make a connection with them. He is, above all, hungering for something more – the type of relationship he once had way back when – one that is no longer is possible given the constraints he labours under. He is lonely. In this fragile state of mind he is ready for an ‘adventure’ before it is all too late. That enters in the form of street savvy teenagers, feisty Lisa and charismatic skateboarder Mark. Very soon he finds himself part and parcel of their escapades, occasionally the ringleader. For a while we are unsure which one will bring him down as we are in no doubt this flirtation, with the dark side of the real world, cannot end well.
Now we’ve ascertained the situation he is in and which of the duo brings him to grief, we backtrack onto a different path. The author takes us to the tale of the love of the priest’s life and the event that caused him to fully turn to his god and the celibate way.
Once that has been conveyed we return to Father David’s fall from grace. Although it is debatable whether he committed the crime in the true sense of the accusation, the priest knows, had it all played out as he intended, he would have done so. Ergo he places self-imposed barriers to escaping what is about to befall him. We wonder if there’s an ultimate price to pay.
As he travels down his path to self destruction we see the strength and loyalty of the women in his life – Lisa to some extent, his novelist mother and his ill-married house-keeper, a vital cog in the case against him. They are all wonderful creations as characters, as is the latter’s deeply flawed spouse who is somewhat the hero of the piece.
I do not know where in the Bible Jesus preaches that to fully serve the god he believes in one has to enter a life devoid of sexual intimacy with another. If he did, then that is at variance with the Jesus I know. Of course, for many, like our main protagonist, being human they fail to measure up and as a result the Catholic church is now in deep do-dos. Once litigation takes over in the aftermath of the various enquiries, commissions and investigations in place world-wide, the institution may well be bought to its knees financially. To me it is an inhumane and self-defeating imposition and O’Hagan glaringly, as well as artfully, presents the troubled face of all this. Even though we look at Anderton as foolhardy for taking one last stab revisiting what he experienced so long ago, we can all relate to his fundamental need.