When Andrew O’Hagan’s 2006 novel begins, David Anderton, a Roman Catholic priest in his 50s who has spent his career in Lancashire, has recently been assigned to a small Ayrshire parish, on the coast of Scotland. Although he has Scottish roots, his English-ness and his Oxford education make him an outsider. His closest associate is his housekeeper, Mrs Poole, who seems to have a special love of the rectory and the beautiful things that David has brought there. They speak French over soup and argue about Chopin. Still, that relationship isn’t enough to soothe David’s feelings of restlessness. It is only when David starts spending time with some of the young people from the local Catholic school that he begins to feel a zest for life.
David is particularly taken with Mark and Lisa, a brash pair who speak their minds and appear ready to take on the world. Soon, he is spending time with them, taking them around town, giving them money, exchanging texts, letting them play jokes on him. As the first-person narrator, David doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with the relationship. He just shares what they did together and how he felt spending time with them. For the reader, however, there is a sense of foreboding over the group, and it’s obvious that there’s something not quite right. For one thing, when the kids want to drink or do drugs or shoplift, David’s protests are, at best, half-hearted and, at worst, nonexistent. It’s almost as if he’s the good kid who’s fallen in with a bad crowd and is desperate not to be abandoned.
Soon, the relationship takes a turn that seems all too predictable. It’s the thing that I knew was probably coming but that I was hoping would not. But much to my surprise, O’Hagan managed to pull it off without turning his book into a diatribe. He does something far more nuanced and interesting. It’s clear what happened that night—there is no ambiguity about that. But O’Hagan does not allow us to simply write David off, as we might be inclined to when presented with the bare facts, without seeing everything that led up to that moment.
After “the thing” happens, David reflects on his life. As other characters weigh in on the situation, certain aspects of David’s character begin to take on a different meaning. His bishop comments that he was an able administrator but not a very good pastor. He mentions that his previous bishop complained that his ministry in Blackpool seemed to consist primarily of music nights and wine tastings. We learn also about the great love that he lost as a young man and about his entering the priesthood not long after, still haunted by that love.
The title, Be Near Me, conveys the longing expressed throughout the book. It seems to be David’s cry from beginning to end, even if he tries to tell himself and others that his life has been full of rewards. He craves nearness but doesn’t seem to know how to seek it. God even seems to be absent, although it’s not clear that David is all that interested in God.
There is a great deal about this book that I liked. The language is poetic without being fussy, and David’s voice has a detached, contemplative quality that suits the story perfectly. He recounts the events almost dispassionately, although you can sense that he’s struggling to understand himself. The audiobook is performed by Jerome Pride, and he does a marvelous job with the different accents, as well as the main narration in David’s own voice. It’s an excellent marriage of beautiful writing and reading.
I find, however, that I’m conflicted about the handling of religion in the book. I could sort of understand the sense of God’s absence in the narrative, but I couldn’t understand why David himself didn’t seem to care about that absence. Did he not notice? The crisis he has rarely feels like a crisis of faith, and I couldn’t quite buy that. It’s a mid-life crisis, and the fact that he’s a priest just means the consequences are more devastating for him and for the community. God and the notion of sin rarely enter in.
One scene near the end of the book was particularly difficult for me to sort through. When attending a Christmas mass, David pockets a communion wafer. The bishop whispers that he “mustn’t,” but he does and walks away. For a Catholic, this is a huge deal. However, nothing more is said about the wafer. I suppose O’Hagan could be showing that David is abandoning his faith as matter-of-factly as he took it up. But taking a wafer doesn’t quite feel like abandonment. And I was totally distracted by the question of what he does with it. The next time he reaches into his pocket, he finds two silver buttons. Is the fact that silver has replaced the consecrated body of Christ supposed to make us think of Judas? Is he saying David betrayed Christ for worldly pleasures? Maybe. I’d like to think so, but I can’t quite decide. And so I’m left feeling unsure about that moment, and to some degree about the book as a whole.
But I suppose the fact that I’m thinking about it this much means the book has stirred me. Perhaps that’s really what O’Hagan was aiming for. Questions, not answers.