For me there is a unique pleasure in reading a novel when the quality of the writing keeps you engaged despite characters which in real life would be quite antipathetic. This one delivered in spades.
“When an English priest takes over a small Scottish parish, not everyone is ready to accept him. He makes friends with two local youths. Mark and Lisa, and clashes with a world he can barely understand.
Be Near Me is a story of art and politics, love and change, and a book about the way we live now. Trapped in class hatreds, threatened by personal flaws, Father David begins to discover what happened to the ideals of his generation.”
Andrew O’Hagan crafts a real world, a seaside hamlet in the Scottish isles, and inhabits it with a flawed priest, a protagonist who I slowly grew to like, to respect, to understand. David, a fifty-something year old, spends a lot of time reflecting on the past, on his childhood, his mother (a successful romance writer who provided him with financial certainty but very little emotional support) and a present day world that makes little sense to him. He values books and fine wine, his love of the latter not enough to suggest alcoholism but more than that expected of a parish priest.
When the locals fail to accept him, some going so far as to threaten and curse him for being English, a pompous outsider who has no place on Scottish soil, he finds companionship with the only other outsiders in the small community – two young people, Mark and Lisa. The youth are fifteen years old, Lisa young and impetuous, overly emotional and taken to shifting loyalties when she doesn’t get her own way, and Mark, a self-absorbed hoodlum who seeks out David’s company in preference to people his own age. The friendship leads to trouble and revelations that I didn’t see coming, but in hindsight were always there.
“Troubles like mine begin, as they end, in a thousand places, but my year in that Scottish parish would serve to unlock everything. There is no other way of putting the matter. Dalgarnock seems now like the central place in a story I had known all along, as if each year and each quiet hour of my professional life had only been a preparation for the darkness of that town, where hope is like a harebell ringing at night.”
Initially I found the book to be slow, overly descriptive in setting and too full of characters and recollections. I continued to read even though it was a challenge to my concentration. Around a third of the way through this changed. I went from reading because I had picked it up and the writing really was masterful, the author well respected and I felt it to be educational to keep reading… to enjoying and engaging and glowering each time I reached my station and had to put the book aside.
There were some aspects of the novel that I could not fully appreciate. For instance, David held a dinner party for his peers and over wine they discussed politics, war, America’s role in Iraq and the influences that shape modern Scotland. References were made to politics, religion, philosophy and I could only read as an observer, unable to engage in the narrative, unable to have a well developed opinion or to even understand some of the comparisons that were made. I felt uneducated, almost stupid, yet I realise I should not. Politics, religion and even philosophy interest me in a general sense, but not specifically. I tune out, I guess I’m like Mark in that respect, I absorb only that which is of personal relevance to me.
Overall, this is a book that deserves a second read (maybe even a third)....Continua