Sebastian Smee

One kiss too many

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Be Near Me

Andrew O’Hagan

Faber, pp. 278, £

Something is eating away at Father David Anderton, the narrator of Be Near Me, a novel as beautiful and perfectly pitched as its title. An English priest working in the Scottish parish of Dalgarnock, he is afflicted by ‘a large private sense of wanting to depart from the person I had always been’. Not his faith but his willingness to evangelise has vanished, and all that remains is his propensity to favour the workings of private taste over public rallying cries. He hates bigotry and small-mindedness and believes in improving the mind; he despises the atmosphere at the local school where ‘education is a matter of bitter entrenchment as opposed to any sort of managed revelation’.

Along comes Mark McNulty, a local teenage delinquent who possesses ‘the kind of sharp and brutal honesty that passes for charm in some people’. Mark spells trouble. He cares little for anything. But he is beautiful to look at and he knows ‘how to insinuate himself into people’s worries about themselves’.

Mark and his friend Lisa become part of Father David’s life, turning up on his doorstep in the middle of the night, daring him to turn them away. They seem beguiled by his refusal to scold them, perhaps also by his low-key concern for them, and so a rapport is established.

Father David may be an aesthete surrounded by vulgarity, but he is no Humbert Humbert. O’Hagan invites the comparison with a little Nabokovian passage about dead butterflies. But his character is a lower, more likeable order of sensualist, more self-conscious and self-critical than Humbert. Long ago, as a Vietnam-era student, he even flirted with political activism, something that would never have occurred to either Humbert or Nabokov.

Still, one night Father David does what no priest ought to do. We can see it coming, but the episode is so brilliantly handled by O’Hagan that it seems to take place in an amoral universe, neither dark nor perverse, but rather beautiful and apparently harmless (it is only a kiss...). It’s as if we were being shown a surprising, rather gorgeous and strangely familiar photograph. And yet at the same time another more righteous part of us stirs in its lair, and the rest of the novel is taken up with what happens to Father David when righteousness, emerging into the full glare of the public domain, meets the righteousness of others.

O’Hagan gets everything right in this book. It is pitiful and beautiful, deluded and honest, seductive and incriminating at every point. A novel narrated by a Catholic priest in an obscure Scottish parish may sound wilfully uncool. But Be Near Me is actually fearlessly topical — as much, in its way, as O’Hagan’s last novel, Personality, which was about the contemporary mania for celebrity. The author handles the lives of the ‘young people’, Mark and Lisa, with a sensitivity free from either sentimentality or caricature. He has some superb set-pieces, including a demoralisingly familiar and thoroughly acrid dinner-party debate about the war in Iraq. And he has a brilliant cast of minor characters, each of whom plays a crucial part in the unfolding plot and in the ‘managed revelation’ of O’Hagan’s deeper concerns (the tension between ethics and aesthetics; the possibility of private life; bearing the consequences of past love and present loneliness).

There is David’s mother, a widow and successful novelist. There is Bishop Gerard, the man who appointed David to his Dalgarnock post but earns his mild contempt by presuming to ‘protect the world from the motions of the mind’. And most importantly, there is Mrs O’Poole, Father David’s housekeeper.

Hobbled by a cruel past, half-imposed, half-chosen (she gave up a child at birth to protect it from her drink-sodden husband), she is wise, ethical and bent on self-improvement, and she treasures her daily conversations with Father David. When cancer comes for her, he tries to say the right things, obtusely thinking, as she puts it, that ‘manners and conversation can get us round anything at all...’ It is not, she tells him, his ‘job to understand’, nor is it ‘to make things smaller than they are’.

Yet making things smaller than they are may be a dangerous habit of Father Anderton’s. It will cost him, even as he points to a raging desire in others to make things bigger than they are (it was just a kiss...). O’Hagan does not moralise. We are with Father Anderton more than we are against him. And yet the author makes it his subtle, humanising business to reveal David’s vanity and his capacity for self-delusion even as we may admire his depth of feeling and searing honesty about himself.

It is hard to imagine a better, more beautiful novel being published this year. I will certainly be reading it again.