I’m down to only two books I’m currently reading, and I’m about to finish one of them! I haven’t been in this situation in a long time. The only thing to be done about it is to start a couple new books, at least. Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Walter Scott’s Waverly, and Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia are the ones I’m planning to choose from.
But for now, I want to write a bit about Andrew O’Hagan’s new novel Be Near Me. I thought the novel had a few flaws, but overall it’s beautifully-written, absorbing, and moving. It’s about a Catholic priest, David Anderton, assigned to a small parish in Scotland who finds himself (David often seems passively drawn into things) involved with two teenage kids, Mark and Lisa. Mark and Lisa are wild; they do their best to shock David, but find themselves drawn to him when he isn’t shocked — when they see he wants to spend time with them. The three of them hang out after school and at night, talking and driving places; David takes the teenagers on trips to local landmarks they had never visited; generally, they have a lot of fun, although it’s clear from early on that these relationships are complicated and bound to become more so.
The novel is told in first person, and mixed in with the Mark and Lisa scenes, David tells about his past, his time at school and at Oxford, especially, and the story of falling in love with Conor, a fellow student. These background stories help to fill in David’s character. He doesn’t fit in easily anywhere and says he’s not sure where he belongs; he had an exciting youth, participating in the student protests of the 60s (he’s now in his 50s), but when he became a priest, he turned away from all that and has since lived a very quiet life, serving in parishes in England and only recently in Scotland.
He seems disconnected from himself, and his voice comes across as stoic and a little bit melancholy, as though he knows he has missed out on much but refuses to admit it. His housekeeper Mrs. Poole, with whom he has forged a friendship, tells him has spent his life trying to avoid life, but he refuses to believe this.
So when he meets and befriends Mark and Lisa, it inaugurates something new; he sees in them the youthful energy he no longer has, but he also grasps at the chance to change himself, to be a participant in life, to take risks and do foolish things. This is the most moving part of the book, I think; the longing David has for newness that he finally allows himself to indulge.
But it all goes wrong, inevitably, and David pays dearly for this experience of freedom and abandon.
What I loved best about the book is how richly it describes David’s sense of self and his interiority; it’s a very smart, thoughtful book, rather sad in the way it portrays growing older and taking stock of what one has become, but hopeful about the possibility of change, even in the midst of disaster. I did feel the narrator’s voice was sometimes a little too withholding, a little too reticent, and in these moments, rather than communicating hidden depths, the narrator left me a bit cold. This is the danger of using first person with a character like David, I suppose; his ambivalence about himself can at times make him seem a little blank.
But I only felt this blankness in moments, and mostly the experience of reading this book was a pleasure.