I wasn't at all sure I wanted to read this book, despite having enjoyed O'Hagan's contributions to the London Review of Books for years. Looking at my towering TBR pile with its many intriguing alternatives, I couldn't summon up much interest in the troubles of a Catholic priest in a small Scottish town. However, as we are told in writing classes, it is the job of the author to make us want to read his or her book and to teach us how to read it, so clutching my faith in this author's talents I plunged in.
The prologue and first chapter didn't grab me. Dialogue-heavy, they left me grasping after dramatic action, some physical movement or manifestation to rock my imagination awake. What is happening here? I thought. And yet, almost without realising it, I was captivated by the witty repartee, the unexected turns of character, the questions subtly raised and left hanging. Understanding finally that this book required a different kind of attention, I read on and ended up enjoying the book tremendously. More, I was left thinking about the contradictions in those around us, and the necessary conflict between the way they see us and how we see ourselves.
Father David Anderton, although born in Scotland, has been brought up in England. After many mildly successful years in a Blackpool parish, he has asked for a transfer to Scotland in order to be near his mother in her old age. In addition to his church duties, he conducts services at St. Andrew's school along with occasional classes in World Religions. At the school he jousts with the Head of Music and becomes friendly with some of the students, particularly Mark and Lisa.
O'Hagan does an excellent job of capturing the voices of the young people; David's middle-aged and overeducated syntax; and the individual tones of townspeople, teachers and other priests. He also does an excellent job of contrasting the various cultures, particularly in capturing the amoral, self-centered world of the teens. Some passages left me shaking with laughter and recognition.
What I found so fascinating here is that the story doesn't go where I thought it would, and the characters don't behave as I thought they would. I was totally bemused by the complexity and surprise of the unfolding story.
It is the surprise that I want to revisit. There is something in the way that the author handles time in this book that makes the flow of the story seamless. Much of the narrative has to do with David's past: his Lancashire father, the years in a Yorkshire prep school, Oxford in the tumultuous 1960s, going to Rome and the decisions he made there. Yet O'Hagan builds up to each of these transitions so carefully, sprinkling just enough oblique references to make the memory, when it finally comes, seem the most natural thing in the world.
Finally, one of the questions that interested me in this novel was how you hang on to your sense of yourself in the face of other people's opinions. David seems to incur distrust and dislike from people around him on so many points: his English background, his Catholicism, his taste for French wine, his erudition. Questions about authenticity seem to lie behind many of the exchanges. Ultimately, this story seems less about religious life in the modern age than about faith in a larger sense, faith in the past and your choices and other people.