Be Near Me
About the book:
“Always trust a stranger,” said David’s mother when he returned from Rome. “It’s the people you know who let you down.”
Half a life later, David is Father Anderton, a Catholic priest with a small parish in Scotland. He befriends Mark and Lisa, two school-kids who live in a world he barely understands. Their company stirs memories of earlier happiness, his days at a Catholic school in Yorkshire, student revolt in 1960s Oxford, and a choice he once made in the orange groves of Rome. He dares to imagine a new life. But beyond the company of these dangerous young people and the loving badinage of Mrs Poole, his housekeeper, lies a dark town which resents strangers. It is a place where Father David”s calling must confront the gathering tensions of past and present.
Andrew O’Hagan’s third novel explores the emotional and moral undercurrents of contemporary Britain: the unresolved disappointments of the 1960s, the intractable class system, the contradictions of religious life in a faithless age, and the shadow of scandals that have haunted the clergy. Be Near Me stands alone.
About the author:
ANDREW O’HAGAN was born in Glasgow in 1968. Be Near Me is his third novel. His second novel, Personality, received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in London and is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books.
Click here to download a pdf of the reading guide for Be Near Me.
Q. On the first page of the prologue, David’s mother gives him the advice, “Always trust a stranger. In this life, it’s the people you know who let you down.” Over the course of the novel, who lets David down? How does his mother’s advice foreshadow what is to come? In what other ways does his mother help him?
Q. Notice that this story begins on Good Friday and ends on Christmas Day. What are the significances of these holidays? Why might the author have chosen to structure the novel this way?
Q. For being a priest, how big a role does religion play in Father Anderton’s life? What kind of priest is he? Why did he decide to become a priest?
Q. On page 19, David says his father “liked to quote Samuel Johnson on the notion that there was nothing too small for such a small thing as man. That was his unbending rule.” Does David have his own rule that he lives by? What might it be?
Q. Discuss the role of fathers, both religious and familial, in this book. What role does David’s father play in his life? What role does Mark’s father play in the novel? What are David’s fatherly responsibilities and how well does he perform them? What nationality is Father Anderton?
Q. Where is Dalgarnock and what sort of place is it? What sort of reception does Father Anderton receive there and why? Place is important throughout the novel; what do some of the different places—such as America, Ailsa Craig, and Oxford—represent to the different characters?
Q. What draws Father Anderton to Mark McNulty and Lisa Nolan? How does his relationship with each of them develop over the course of the novel? Consider how Mark and Lisa act together in comparison with how they act when each is alone with Father Anderton. Why do they enjoy spending time with him? Who pursues the relationship?
Q. Through dialogue, O’Hagan differentiates the way the young people speak from the way Father Anderton speaks, as well as the way Scottish people in general speak. Mark and Lisa often make fun of how Father Anderton talks: He’s very posh, and they often criticize his use of words such as “perhaps” and “apparently.” Discuss the importance of language in this novel as a means of characters understanding one another and as a representation of where a person is from. Discuss your own experiences interacting with people with accents different from your own. What assumptions do you make about people based on the way they speak?
Q. Father Anderton often reminisces about his political days at university. What were his politics at Oxford and how involved do we discover him to be in them? What are his politics now, specifically as discussed at the dinner Father Anderton hosts in Chapter Seven, “The Economy of Grace”? How do they compare to Mark and Lisa’s politics? Who are the Bombastics? Who are the Marcellists? What is their relationship to each other?
Q. Compare Mark with Conor as the objects of David’s attention. How are they similar and how are they different? What do we learn about Father Anderton over the course of his trial that we didn’t know before? Would you say this makes him an unreliable narrator? In what other ways has he proven to be unreliable, if at all?
Q. Who is Mrs. Poole and how does her role change in relation to Father Anderton? What does David’s mother do for her and why? What does Mrs. Poole tell the police? How does she respond during Father Anderton’s trial? Do you agree with her actions? If you were a juror assigned to his trial, would you find Father Anderton guilty? Why or why not?
Q. On page 110, Brother Joseph tells a young David at Ampleforth, “I am an actor . . . Being a person of faith is just like being a movie actor. Friend of the dark.” What does he mean by this? Later, on page 209, Bishop Gerard says, “You’ve always been an actor, David. An actor will always want to play the part.” What does it mean to be an actor? How is Father Anderton an actor?
Q. Go back and read the epigraph by Alfred, Lord Tennyson on the first page. Why might the author have chosen this poem? How is its meaning significant to Father Anderton’s story?