Tale lodged in Scotland’s faith and soccer divide

What is it about Mark and Lisa that appeals to Father David? Mr. O'Hagan suggests a possibility early on, when describing a class on world religions taught by Father David and attended by the teenagers. In that passage, Father David notices several of the children “chew[ing] the frayed ends of their sweaters in the style of caged animals attempting to escape their own quarters.”

That is a telling metaphor. For isn’t the condition of being caged something Father David well understands? His instinct toward physical, romantic love is like an animalistic force within him, a force that must be suppressed by the restraints of the collar. In these children he comes to see a reflection not only of his own inner conflicts, but also of his history of nostalgia and loss.

The priest’s attraction to Mark and Lisa becomes clearer when we realize that he is nothing more, in many ways, than an innocent, a child, even. “One never buys a house or pays school fees,” he says, characterizing his life in the clergy. “One sleeps in a single bed. One lives like an orphan in a beautiful paternalistic dream. As a priest one may never grow up.” Those four sentences, deceptively simple, contain the essence of Father David’s deeply flawed character. They also constitute a dangerous confession, for they seem like a justification for the criminal act that takes place later in the novel.

“Be Near Me” is subtle, morally complex and politically current. And if it is primarily about the fall of a man entrusted with the spiritual lives of an increasingly faithless people, it is also a portrait of loneliness — the title is itself a plea for companionship — and fitting in, of how belief and prejudice can shape a community (blind adherence to one’s football club is, in Mr. O'Hagan’s novel, a metaphor for a much deeper form of tribalism).

It is also a disturbing vision of an unapologetic mind, one that uses the romances of the past to justify the crimes of the present. In this way, Mr. O'Hagan has written a work that is eminently contemporary, heartbreaking, unforgettable.

Sudip Bose is senior editor of Preservation magazine.

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