“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.
7 out of 10