68 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spectacular
I've liked O'Hagan's writing ever since The Missing and have followed his progress with interest. This new book, which I read in two sittings, is less brutal and 'Scottish' than Our Fathers (I suppose it's more 'accessible,' whatever that means), is - at first glance - less pyrotechnical than Personality, and is by far his best work. There isn't a word out of place. The...
Published on 16 Aug 2006 by Jimmy
34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Flawed work compromised by credibility
I found this to be a book of three parts. In the first, O'Hagan introduces us to the main character and narrator, Fr David Anderton, and provides an introduction to his background, his childhood, and his coming to Scotland - including a very real account of the religious bigotry experienced by Fr David at first hand. So far so good, with the narrative building well and...
Published on 3 Oct 2006 by Dwight Braxton
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68 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spectacular,
I've liked O'Hagan's writing ever since The Missing and have followed his progress with interest. This new book, which I read in two sittings, is less brutal and 'Scottish' than Our Fathers (I suppose it's more 'accessible,' whatever that means), is - at first glance - less pyrotechnical than Personality, and is by far his best work. There isn't a word out of place. The narrative is like a tightned string. The language and imagery are stunning - one review I read called him a prose poet, and I think that's right. But above all, the generosity of the writing, and the refusal to judge or condemn, are something that will stay with me for a long time. I haven't thought so much about a book for years: is O'Hagan's central character a sort of holy innocent, or deeply flawed, or a narcisstic monster, or just careless? I think he is probably all four. One of the strengths of the book is that it causes you to think deeply about subjects to which it is easy to have a knee-jerk response.
Be Near Me is about a priest, Father David, and about his relationships, including one with a 15-year-old boy. But that's to simplify things - really it's about the nature of love, faith, beauty, and morality. I couldn't recommend it highly enough. It is a stunning achievement.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Robbed of the Booker,
This year's Booker shortlist must be pretty stunning it if could afford to ignore a novel this good. Then again, it seems that the criteria may have changed - Chair of the Judges, Hermione Lee, explained that 'names' like O'Hagan were absent because 'they don't need us'. Hang on - so this is no longer a prize for the best novel (wherever its place in an author's career), just a patronizing leg-up for the unfamilar? John Banville and Alan Hollinghurst hardly 'needed' the prize in that sense.
Anyway, this is a very fine piece of work. It grapples with 'ideas' (particularly the failure of socialist principles), but it's the emotional core of the book that hooks. Father David's incremental, unwitting seduction (by Mark? of Mark?) is painfully believable, snared by beauty and passion in a place where there is precious little of either. That's not to say that the intellectual drive of the novel is something quite separate: I take O'Hagan to be suggesting (a bit like Conrad) that in a world where so much is hopelessly 'irremediable', it's only at the most microscopic level - the offering of friendship - that one can hope to do good. This is not a failure of courage or ambition. O'Hagan is a master of character - even the most minor players are given full life in the space of a few lines of dialogue - and his writing has both dazzle and depth. I had him down for a journalist who wrote fiction on the side, but this puts him right up there with the best British novelists.
34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Flawed work compromised by credibility,
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I found this to be a book of three parts. In the first, O'Hagan introduces us to the main character and narrator, Fr David Anderton, and provides an introduction to his background, his childhood, and his coming to Scotland - including a very real account of the religious bigotry experienced by Fr David at first hand. So far so good, with the narrative building well and the characters taking shape. The middle third, however, was spoiled for me simply because I found that the events depicted - a scholarly and cultured English priest aged 57 running around in the middle of the night in stolen cars, popping Es and drinking cider with a group of juvenile delinquents - were just not credible. The young people themselves also came across as one-dimensional caricatures introduced to prop up a lame narrative, almost like escapees from something by Irvine Welsh. By all means, O'Hagan could have produced a fine novel centred on a priest who falls for a young man and suffers the consequences - but I felt that this could have been treated by a more slow-burn approach involving something more believable, rather than the way the story actually plays out. And then the final third, dealing with topics of death, rebirth, and self-recognition, is exquisite and beautifully narrated.
I was disappointed by this book - a writer as gifted as O'Hagan should have done better and I think he spoiled it (and his MAN Booker chances) by creating a middle section which simply stretches credibility. And one other thing - I didn't think that the feelings recounted by the narrator reflected what a real gay man would have said - I'd be fascinated to hear what someone like Colm Toibin would make of this. Worth a read, all the same.
38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An unfolding tragedy, with grace along the way,
A moving story is at the heart of this book, but it is the portrayals of its main characters and their inter-actions which are its main strengths. The story concerns an English Roman Catholic priest, David Anderton, who moves to a parish in Scotland, where old sectarian tensions live on into the present day. Anderton experiences prejudice from his Protestant neighbours, but never quite connects with his own parishioners - hardly surprising in view of his love of old English roses and fine wines. The only successful relationship he maintains is with his house-keeper, Mrs Poole, and there is some fine dialogue in the chapters where their verbal sparring predominates, and where later they have to deal with difficult issues.
Anderton eventually extends his ministry among the local youth, and the writer captures the dangerous carelessness of the relationships that develop as Anderton moves into a world in which he could never participate without taking risk bordering on recklessness. The writer exactly describes how a lonely, almost isolated life can lead to the taking of any opportunities for human contact however dubious the company.
Indeed, Andrew O'Hagan has shown in David Anderton, the basic immaturity and childlikeness of many celibates. Anderton went to a Benedictine boarding school, then on to Oxford University and later seminary in Rome, and never had to deal with the challenges faced by those he had to minister too, his main interests being good food, wine and reading - hardly the staple interests of the working class Parish he was called to. When his housekeeper falls ill with cancer, it is the passages in which this is discussed which show Anderton's failings. His attempts to trivialise the illness and offer a spurious hope are rebuffed with words from Mrs Poole which would shame any priest. However, O'Hagan shows a huge amount of grace comes Anderton's way, mainly through his mother, his house-keeper and O'Hagan helps us see that no crime is quite as straightforward (or perhaps as dreadful) as it as first seems.
Several scenes have the quality of intense drama, as though the reader is watching a stage-play, the world around him momentarily silent as the action unfolds. The pace of the book is just right: periods of narrative are interspersed with reflective looks back on the life of David Anderton, which help illuminate the present dramas. The latter half of the book is like an accident waiting to happen: the reader knows where Anderton's path is leading him, and can him making the mistakes along the way which lead to the inevitable disaster.
The book is finely written and has the mark of quality. Anyone who likes good prose will enjoy reading it and feel at the end that the experience was well worth while.
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You will live 'Be Near Me'.,
This is the most beautifully written book I have read in years. In one review I read, it said something like, "O'Hagan's prose is like poetry'. It really is but not in a way that is flowery or detracts from the story. Oh the story! I had to walk away several times when reading this book, from fear of Father David's decisions and actions, only to return a few minutes later to hide the book further under a cushion, while quietly palpitating and loudly beseeching the ficional character to reconsider!
There are scenes in this book which I still think of, often. A dinnerparty scene which is excruciating to read; a scene of such mob mentality at a summer fair that it made me cringe and feel so humiliated for Father David that I felt my face burn bright red; a scene at a railway, at night, where two people (I don't want to give away too much) laugh and yell at a passing goods train with that mad kind of freedom that comes from new friendships, sexual energy, and the exhilaration of being alive that it only happens to one every twenty or so years. All the scenes are so beautifully observed and acute that you literally pause and wonder and think to yourself, "of course, I know that, I have seen that but before this, why have I not truely noticed or recognised it?" Oh, and the scenes with Mrs Poole, you will love her, pity her, and above all come to admire her strengths and hopes...And Mark, I will let you discover him for yourself. But he is bad, selfish, loveable, dangerous and young. You will care about him and find him attractive, I understand why Father David.... but I will say no more.
This book is about lost love, new love, people who strive to know and want more and other people who are at their most content when celebrating their own misery and the downfall of others. But most of all, as O'Hagan writes, it is about how we cannot really choose whom to love.
If this does not win the Booker prize, I will weep in my bed at the injustice of it all.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a quiet wow,
Until now I've read Andrew O'Hagan's books with mild disappointment - there has been the odd enchanting line, but overall a sense of thinness and, maybe, arrogance. I don't know what's happened to O'Hagan in the last few years, but now, having just finished 'Be Near Me', I am stunned. What a beautiful book. It marks the arrival of a great writer.
I have been thinking about 'Be Near Me' and its protagonist, Father David, ever since putting it down. It very quietly works its way into you. This book is a jewel.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Compassionate portrait - beautifully written,
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This is a wonderful, compassionate portrait of a man who never overcame early tragedies...the premature deaths of his father and, more significantly, of his lover. It is a story of loss, of denial, and of suppression of sexuality. It would have been easy for O'Hagan to have turned this story into a trite attack on the Catholic Church's attitudes to homosexuality and to celibacy, but his writing is much too subtle for that.
The central character, a priest, is at odds with his past and with his present, a misfit in an impoverished Scottish parish who falls in with a group of raw, underprivileged teenagers. He tries to offer them something from his own rich cultural past - a glimpse of poetry, the beauty of Ailsa Craig and they, in their own way, try to share with him something of their lives - if only an acceptance of him into their confidences.
He steps too far from his role as a priest, and for just one moment the past and his repressed sexuality bubble up, and he crosses the line, just a moment. From then, his life, such as it was, unravels. There is a potent image of his garden of roses, tended by him and his housekeeper, being smashed and destroyed.
Why have I rated it as 4 stars rather than 5? It falls short of being a great novel. It is painted in a water-colour rather than oil....it fell short of fully engaging my emotions. But it's certainly worth reading.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Flawed tale of the fall of a priest,
O'Hagan's Booker listed novel follows the downfall of Father David Anderton. Haunted by a tragic relationship at university he takes over a parish in a remote Ayrshire post-industrial town.
Although born in Scotland Anderton spent much of his life in England and his pompous manner and lack of accent causes distrust amongst the locals. Cared for by his busybody housekeeper Mrs Poole, Anderton listens to music, reads books and in the opinion of his flock neglects his duties.
When teaching a the local school he makes friends with a young couple and sees it as his duty to save/educate them. And it is here that the novel loses some of it's credibility. Anderton is seduced by their rough and ready nature, but this seems at odds with his own character and when he ends up taking ecstacy with the young boy he mistakes friendship for something else and kisses him,
What happens next is right out of News of the World; the disgraced priest is abandoned by the church, insults are painted on his door and the town predictably turns against him.
While the writing is excellent the characterisation is less so. The children are one dimensional chavs and the back story that is intended to explain Anderton's action doesn't quite work. Much of Anderton's actions are against the character that has been created for him by O'Hagan and the reader is left with a feeling that Anderton has brought it all on himself. This could be read as someone tragically falling on his sword, but it just doesn't seem right. Anderton's refusal to admit that he has done any wrong feels inexplicable given his past and as a reader I just felt confused by his motives.
Which is a shame, because Be Near Me contains some lovely writing; there is just a feeling that O'Hagan made Anderton act in a particular way to serve his plot rather than behave in a way that is in line with his character. In the end Anderton comes across as a pompous fool, and I'm sure this wasn't the fullness of what O'Hagan intended.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Beautiful and remorseful look at wasted life,
"Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick..."
Lord Alfred Tennyson - Be Near Me When My Light is Low
Father David Anderton, a softly spoken, middle-class English priest takes over a rough Catholic parish near Glasgow, where unemployed men cry watching Celtic and laze on the sofa drinking away the days. But the culture-clash that his appearance precipitates is nothing compared to the turmoil within his own soul. Looking back over his formative years and the loses he endured in 1960's Oxford and then the seminaries of Rome, this is a story of impossibility, of a man not suited to life, whose every move has left him feeling further and further removed from the world he sees around him. Consumed by regret Father David is entranced by the exuberance of two local youths whose course language and disdainful rejection of emotion fill him with all that he has never been able to be. But there is darkness around the corner and all the pent up frustration and class hatred of the local community is just waiting for a chance to explode.
`Be Near Me' is one of the saddest books you are likely to read. It takes its tone from Romantic poets such as Tennyson whose sublime words evoke all that is poignant in this book: the sorrow and desperation of a life tamed by regret; the harrowed clutching at hope in the face of outrageous despair; the simple frailty of human existence.
However, while Andrew O'Hagan uses tone with adept subtlety, his prose is often overly dense and his characters never fully convince. Too often they appear stereotypes used to push a lumbering plot towards its conclusion rather than as genuinely conceived creations. There is also something hopelessly out of touch and disingenuous about the portrayal of youth with its monosyllabic drone and hip-hop obsession. But amidst these frailties lies a man falling apart. There are some books where the overall impression is so heartbreakingly complete that flawed details are lost amid an all-purveying atmosphere. This is one of them. By the end, I was consumed by nothing other than remorse: remorse for Father David Anderton who loved and longed too hard to interact with others; remorse for the impossibility of it all; remorse for all those millions of tiny people floating through their lives dreaming of God but capable of feeling and inflicting only pain.
I would encourage everyone to read this. There is nothing like a dose of regret to make one feel wholly human.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disgraced Again,
I liked J.M. Coetzee's "Disgrace" and "Be Near Me" follows a similar theme: a middle aged man commits a catastrophic error of judgement which causes him to reflect upon his life. In O'Hagan's book the man in question is Father David Anderton, a Catholic priest recently arrived in the small Ayrshire village of Dalgarnock. Father David is not a popular man. Even his staunchest defender, his housekeeper Mrs Poole says of him, "Father David is not a bad man. I don't think he knows very much about people." She is right. Father David knows about literature, Chopin and wine, but people are not his speciality. Religion is also almost an irrelevance to this man and, like the protagonists of Banville's "The Sea" and Murdoch's "The Sea, the Sea" (I'm not trying to be funny here), he is in a state of profound detachment from the world. What begins the process of his re-engagement, is his meeting a teenager, Mark McNulty, what finishes it, is a moment of redemption, when Anderton finally admits the reality of what he has done and spares Mark a brutal cross examination.
"Be Near Me" is a beautifully written description of a man so profoundly lonely that when he is trapped in his house with a mob bent on revenge crashing up the stairs, he says, "No saving grace. The only person in these moments was my oldest acquaintance - myself - waiting as usual for a creak on the stairs, the feel of the cotton against my ear drawing me back to the sound of my own blood turning." This is a man for whom the only reality is himself and a past where loss is the key note.
And this is the novel's greatest weakness. However well written the book, the sense of disengagement is pervasive and it deflected me from caring very much about David Anderton and his predicament. I cared, strangely perhaps, more for Mark's friend Lisa, whose life is so terminally restricted that going to court is as exciting as being on the telly and even more for Mark himself, both innocent and knowing, who meets Father David by chance once the trauma is past and asks the priest if he knows any soldiers, because he is going to join the Army and learn a trade.
The same is true of what the book centrally attempts to convey: it can be read as an indictment of mob politics and small town bigotry; it can be read as a critique of the emptiness of young peoples' lives (although what else can young people be but empty when they haven't actually done much living yet?); it can be read as a poetic description of a wasted life, but the strength of O'Hagan's prose is also it's weakness. The very subtlety that is so appealing when conveying detail, acts to blunt the effect of the larger messages, so I was never very sure what conclusions I should or could draw. You could say the same of "Disgrace" but its ending packs a punch while "Be Near Me" misses the mark, not by miles, but by enough for it to drop from 4 to 3 stars for me. In the end, perhaps O'Hagan fails to bring David Anderton near enough.
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