Sunday, June 10, 2012

Meeting the stranger in oneself (Books - Be Near Me by Andrew O'Hagan)

The subject matter of a book is often what determines whether or not I read it.  Who and what it is about leads us to anticipate our interest in its events or identification with its protagonist.  The more we read, the more experienced we imagine we become at such predictions, but then every so often we get a surprise. I picked Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me off the recommended books table at a favorite bookstore a week back only to find out it is about an Oxford educated Catholic priest engaged to lead a parish in an economically depressed village in Scotland.  That was not at all what I was interested in for my next read and yet this novel about encountering strangers - particularly the stranger in oneself  - turned out to be the most involving, probing, and beautifully written novel I have read this year.

David Anderton, the priest, works at a school he meets Mark and Lisa, two teenagers with greed for stimulation but little respect for anything else.  For them the world seems to exist solely to surprise and enliven them, or else it fails them utterly.  The priest falls in with them, purportedly as a guiding figure, but really because their balls-out risk taking impels a re-encounter between him and his old self - a creative man who valued the sensual as well as the sacred and knew the value of being close to others.
Lisa stroked her shiny leg with a marigold and smacked her lips.  She suddenly looked up at me as if she hadn't seen me before.  'Father,' she said, 'you have waster your life, haven't you?'

The island was real to me in the way that memory is real, a place almost too solid and transfixing, 'I don't think so,' I said, 'I  believe in God.  That has been my life.'

'It can't be,' she said.  'You could have been having a good time and you've wasted it.'

'That's not true, Lisa.  Not from my point of view.  We have different names for it, but I've lived according to my faith.'

'What is your name?'


'Your real name.  What is it?'

'David Anderton.'

'So what's wrong with just being him?'

I stood up and spun a stone across the loch to make it jump.  'It must be quite boring,' she said, 'being Father somebody and having to go on like you're good all the time.  Nobody else does.  And then you end up here, in Bubmblefuck, UK.'
That is the conflict in a nutshell, but that would belie the novel's depth and its ability to convey Anderton's longing through the lyricism of its language.  O'Hagan's writing makes this seem inevitable to the narrative by imbuing his first-person narrator with a precision of observation born of a cultured palate for refined experiences along with a distance from the messes of life.
I blamed Mrs Poole's soup for the heartburn.  I felt an empty, dyspeptic scorch as I drove to the school, like a rising argument at the centre of my chest, and I found there were no Rennies in the glove compartment.  Then I thought maybe it was the white wine, a nightmare for heartburn, though you couldn't fault the freshness of a good and well-made Alsace, the taste of Easter and crushed flowers.
O'Hagan has a talent for fashioning surprising three-dimensional characters, not only in Mark and Lisa, but also in Anderton's widowed mother - a successful author of historical romances - and in his frank, francophile housekeeper.  These compel the reader because they function not merely as props to the plot but as compelling persons in their own right.  He is equally adept at writing dialogue, a skill evident in multi-person scenes.  Two of these stick with me as though I saw them in a film: one is a flashback to Anderton's undergraduate days at Oxford with his set of aesthete radicals.  Wittily entertaining, it also allows the reader a glimpse into the priest's past.  The second is a dinner party he throws for fellow priests, a bishop, and social worker.  An excess of fine French wine produces a contentious moral debate regarding Catholic views on the use of force versus love in world politics.  This uncomfortable scene reveals how Anderton's views have evolved under the influence of Mark, Lisa and some of his other parishoners.

O'Hagan scrutinizes how beliefs and human needs in the context of the modern world collaborate in producing our actions.  Despite analytical aims and a seemingly specialized mileu, Be Near Me is an involving and penetrating read because of terrific writing and rich characters made accessible because their conflicts are familiar as our own.

1 comment:

Anne Higgins said...

Thanks for this review. You have made me want to read this book. I can't right now, but hope to get around to it sometime soon. Hoping it's in our county's library system. I just can't buy any more books - lack of both money and space!