- Be Near Me
- Harcourt, 320 pp.
The novel Be Near Me, by Andrew O’Hagan, investigates the nature of moral ambivalence through the opinions and actions of Father David Anderton, the first-person narrator. Because it is his subjective voice that tells the story, we necessarily only hear his account of the ensuing events, which include his sense of isolation in his new parish in Dalgarnock, Scotland and the description of his developing relationship with teenagers Mark and Lisa. In some sense, Anderton’s narration may be compared favourably with a dramatic monologue, as he inadvertently reveals his own failings whilst simultaneously relating his clouded perceptions of others. He remains a distant and mostly unlikeable narrator throughout, and it is thanks to O’Hagan’s command of the form and content that this awkward novel is also a pleasure to read.
The main themes of implied sexual abuse and the unruly actions of the mob are delivered through Anderton’s perspective, and this contributes to the problematic nature of this work. ‘Problematic’ is not used as a negative criticism, but denotes, instead, how O’Hagan has avoided oversimplifying the implications of abuse. As Anderton reveals more of himself, including his homosexuality and grief for his dead lover, the narrative increasingly refuses to offer a binary, black and white judgement and becomes a difficult, questioning novel.
This is O’Hagan’s fourth work and, as with the others, Scotland is used as an ambiguous and, at times, unsavoury backdrop. In Our Fathers (1999), for example, Scotland is criticized for breeding prejudices amongst its populace. The Missing (1995), which is a combination of memoir and cultural commentary, shows affection for his home city Glasgow, but is also quick to remember its history of violence. This begins with an interest in a grandfather who went missing at sea and develops into an extended search into the ‘history of absences’.
Be Near Me continues in this tradition in particular in the depictions of the mob turning against Anderton. Even though the version the readers are given is filtered through him (an English-raised middle class Catholic), it is evident that he becomes a vehicle for O’Hagan to attack a small minded parochialism (dressed as a stereotypical Scot) which inspires attacks on the unknown outsider. In a parallel with this indictment, Anderton’s bourgeois-based stereotypes of the poor are also exposed as being based on ignorance when his friendship with his housekeeper, Mrs. Poole, develops.
The novel’s complexities allow it to be a critique of both the attacker and the attacked, and consequently muddle the concept of moral certainty. This is most apparent in the accusation of child abuse made against a priest, as this questions his identity and position of moral authority. As the novel progresses, he reveals to Mrs Poole how he has been performing the role of priest, rather than believing it. He plays the part badly, and part of the condemnation that is aimed at him has roots in the ambivalence he feels for his job.
This is a broad ranging work as it manages to be poetic whilst drawing on current events in the news, such as the war in Iraq, teenage delinquency and paedophilia in the Catholic Church. It is possible to be critical of the inclusion of so many contemporary themes, but the novel is saved from a too harsh judgement by the peculiarity of the narrator. As these themes are engaged with through Anderton, who is characteristically unable to confront the full implications of his own actions let alone the British government’s, the novel may appear to be superficial in its passing allusions to contemporary concerns. For Anderton’s voice to remain constant, though, these references must remain unexamined.
It is in Anderton’s idealized memories of the past that O’Hagan is able to demonstrate his subtlety in evoking an idyll, and the epigraph and title, which are taken from Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’, become increasingly relevant as Anderton reveals the story about his dead, male lover, Conor: ‘I often see the ways real life would have made us banal. Victims of forgotten hope, we would have lived too closely, perhaps, and learned to hate the smallness of each other’s habits, the unlovable, tense hostility of needs and doubts and supposed obligations.’ Be near me refers to Anderton’s grief as well as desire, and his undoubted loneliness.
Over all, this is an intriguing novel. At times, the concepts that are broached are unpalatable and the narrator is flawed and unappealing, but this does not make an unappealing novel. O’Hagan’s use of language is as contained as ever and he continues to avoid diluting stories that appear to be so well known in the popular press. In Personality (2003), he wrote about the rise of a child star (based on the 1970s singer, Lena Zavaroni) and added to, rather than ripped off, the debates on the preoccupation with celebrity. He continues to be as relevant and succinct with Be Near Me.