Andrew O'Hagan's third novel confirms him as one of the most distinctive and compelling voices in modern English fiction. Or rather British fiction. The complex tensions between the identities of Scotland and England - and, at one or two removes, Ireland - provide much of the voltage behind his prose. His writing is worldly, gentle, observant and humorous, but avoids the easy snap of irony. It has the seriousness and texture of poetry, but is rescued from self-importance by the cracking dialogue.
In Be Near Me, O'Hagan returns to some of the themes - lost idealism, socialism, Scottish Catholicism, paternalism - of his first novel, Our Fathers. In that book, the narrator recalled with forgiveness in his heart his seduction by a priest preparing him for confirmation ("There were worse things than getting secretly kissed in the small afternoon by a young priest shaking with nerves"). This issue is evidently unresolved. Be Near Me is narrated by David, a middle-aged priest of uncertain temperament who finds himself at the centre of a paedophilia storm. Scottish-born but English-raised, David is moved from a ministry in Lancashire to Ayrshire, where he is plunged into a sectarian minefield for whose dangers he is wholly unprepared. His growing intimacy with a teenage boy at the state Catholic school where he is chaplain ignites tribal loathing, tabloid-fuelled hysteria and a personal crisis - not a crisis of faith, exactly, but one that returns him to faith.
The mysteries of David's life are disclosed and illuminated in an elegant pattern of chapters, flashing back and forth. O'Hagan does well to find voices for the menopausal clergyman, the fastidious don, the Oxford aesthete and the teenage schoolkid with some serious attitude. Most impressive, however, is the author's portrayal of David's housekeeper, Mrs Poole: far from a sitcom stereotype, she is a vivid personality whose friendship offers David a kind of redemption.
Indeed, the relationship between them is the warmest part of the book. David complains playfully about the austerity of the lunch she serves, which consists merely of lettuce soup: "There are monks and starving people who would thank you for this. Can we go wild and add a few bits of bread to the feast?" Mrs Poole replies tartly: "Suit yourself. Be my guest. If you want to remember Christ's agony by gorging on crusts, I can't stop you." Later, Mrs Poole exchanges words with the postman about David's mixed background, and she is told: "Yer man's as English as two weeks in Essex."
These lines, and many others, made me laugh out loud - not so much on account of the comedy, but because of the muscular rightness of the language. There are times when the book could do with more of such dialogue and less of the highly worked poetic prose - though that is always delivered with candour and force.
David has a notable character trait, incidentally: he is quietly but decidedly in favour of the war in Iraq. Like the hero of Ian McEwan's Saturday, or indeed John Updike's Rabbit, David argues for a war that horrifies the literary chattering classes. There is the tiniest touch of bravura, even machismo, in the way David is sent into the lion's den of fictional conservatism.
Some readers might become restive at the author's reluctance to plunge them too brutally into direct action. Another sort of novelist would have turned the scenes in which David is physically threatened and attacked into nail-biters, but O'Hagan coolly keeps his distance. He insists on finding something different, something revelatory but not obviously dramatic, in the confrontation. It is part of what makes him such a good writer.