I am behind with my book reporting, but catch up a little now with not one but two candidates for my best reads of 2007!
Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan (2006).
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. (– C. Bligh “Chrissie” (Cambridge, UK))
Eminent Scottish novelist Alan Massie concludes his review thus: “Yes, I wish I had written it.”
Paedophilia in general and paedophile priests in particular are among the greatest loci for stereotyping, moral panic and reflexive self-righteous wrath in our time. This novel does not condone abuse, but does question wherein abuse might lie, and who the greatest abusers actually are. It also portrays modern working class Scotland unromantically but not unsympathetically, with reference too to globalisation and the War on Terror and their corrupting effects on ourselves. It’s not a perfect novel, but it certainly is a very fine one.
Setting Be Near Me in Robert Burns country in Ayrshire, O’Hagan invokes “Address To The Unco Guid, Or The Rigidly Righteous”.
Ye high, exalted, virtuous dames,
Tied up in godly laces,
Before ye gie poor Frailty names,
Suppose a change o’ cases;
A dear-lov’d lad, convenience snug,
A treach’rous inclination—
But let me whisper i’ your lug,
Ye’re aiblins nae temptation.
Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho’ they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark,—
The moving Why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark,
How far perhaps they rue it.
Also negotiating dangerous ground, not for the first time, is Salman Rushdie. I have to admit I found The Satanic Verses almost unreadable, never finishing it, but I rejoice in Shalimar the Clown. Offended Muslims really should suspend judgement and attend to what Rushdie is saying in this latest novel, because the core message is one that all humanity should attend to. You will see from that link that reviewers are divided. Many see the book as over-the-top, too clever by half, manipulative… There were some cringe moments, but not many. It got me in and I thoroughly recommend it. Fanaticism (and not just one kind) emerges as the evil it is, and that is good for all readers.