A review of Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Be Near Me
by Andrew O’Hagan
2006. ISBN 978-0-15-603396, $14.00, 305 pages

This is O’Hagan’s fourth novel. It was longlisted for the Booker. That it was not a Booker winner prompts the obvious reaction: if an exquisitely written book like this didn’t win the Booker, how grand the winner must have been. It doesn’t work that way, I think. The winning novel is often no more than the most politically correct of the books under consideration and has no other merit of much interest.

And Be Near Me is exquisitely written and this in itself prompts another question. Can a book that is exquisitely written condescend to bother with plot, characterization, and, quite simply, the dirty work of novelistic labor?

The protagonist and narrator is Father David Anderton. His recent assignment to the parish of a small Scottish village has brought him up against the narrowness of the villagers, few of whom are of his religion and many are under the burden of an anti-Catholic spirit that has probably not changed since the seventeenth century, He is understandably lonely. His housekeeper, a witty and intelligent woman, is some solace for the two and half days that she spends in the parsonage but he is otherwise adrift and asks more of the local school and in particular its music master than is possible. This losing battle turns him to the young whose lack of decorous respect is at least honest and in its way refreshing. The most prominent are Mark and Lisa. They are about fifteen, have no resources; they are shiftless and inert products of the welfare state with no demands beyond alcohol, drugs, sex, and devotion to the football team of their choice.

Father Anderton does not tell his story in consecutive order. He writes first about his present and then about various episodes from his past. In this way we learn that he was a good student, a faithful friend, and a young man with imagination and style. He began his study for the priesthood after the death of Conor, his young lover.

O’Hagan leaves it to the reader to tie the elements of this narrative together. We are not far along before we discern that there is something lacking in Father Anderton. He has been sincere about himself but the sincerity is limited and he struggles to find and to repair the broken link in his life. His action is both hastened and diverted by the eruption of a public scandal over his relations with Mark.

This is a thoughtful book as well as a stylistic triumph and its writing and its characters will stay on the mind of the reader with a force to be found in few books.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places