Andrew O'Hagan's brave and beautiful "Be Near Me" takes place deep in the unaccustomed world of a priest accused of the sexual assault of a minor. It is not a pretty world -- nor a black and white one -- but it is where the fictional Father David Anderton finds himself, in his mid-50s, as he attempts to minister to a small Roman Catholic parish in Scotland.
Is he guilty? Perhaps of poor judgment -- but certainly not assault. The rub is that, as Father Dave's mother puts it, "the public nowadays is not minded for subtlety."
But O'Hagan is and this, his third novel, is a perfect prism of a book -- multilayered, wise, witty and, for the most part, wonderfully written.
Its title is taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "In Memoriam, A.H.H.," a lament for a Cambridge friend who died untimely -- as, we learn, had been Father Dave's close companion at Oxford, a young political activist named Conor Docherty.
"At night, I sometimes see him driving down to the place where the River Wye runs through a valley in the Buckinghamshire," Father Dave muses decades later. "I hear his sacred heart and see his eyes closing as he falls asleep. And I say: be near me."
For years, as a priest in England, the Scots-born Father Dave recalls the Brideshead-like idyll of his younger days with Conor -- drawing safely on that lost love.
But, as his novelist-mother grows older, he requests a transfer to a parish in Scotland's Ayrshire region where his mother lives, becoming pastor of St. John Ogilvie Church in the small town of Dalgarnock.
Here, he is mistrusted, being both schooled and an outsider, a man with English manners who is deeply interested in reading, music and fine wine. Here, among others, he meets the aimless, almost "Clockwork Orange"-like teenagers Mark "McNuggets" McNulty and Lisa Nolan.
"During my time with Mark and Lisa, around the housing estate or at the school, in playgrounds or at church events they had come to in search of trouble, they often smelled of glue and spoke to me as if I were a natural enemy of authority," Father Dave remembers, after his arrest.
"They spoke of stolen money and air pistols and homemade cider. They went out joyriding at night while pretending to sleep over with friends. Over the months, I began to know worse things about them, how little they cared about life, how dehumanized they could be, yet I did not oppose them."
"I gave in to every aspect of them, every aspect of myself. I watched them as one might watch people in a film, because he was beautiful, because I liked the way they seemed to think of me."
There is guile and seduction here, with inevitable results -- and consequences. There is also Mrs. Poole, the terminally ill parish housekeeper, who -- although deeper than she seems -- is unwavering in her moral opinion of what she saw the Sunday morning she encountered Father Dave and the bold McNuggets at the end of an apparent night of it.
We meet Mrs. Poole early in "Be Near Me," and are unfortunately exposed to page upon page of banter between Mrs. Poole and Father Dave -- banter that is at times as cloying as that found in some Andrew Greeley mysteries.
But this is a small price to pay for the book that follows -- so contemporary yet so ageless, so simple yet so difficult, so ripe for Father Dave's psychological ruminations on it all.
"Sometimes stopping to think is in itself a way of stopping harm, and I can only say that I didn't have it in me to stop or to remember who I was at that moment," he considers at one point.
There is a memorable meeting, after the arrest, between Father Dave and his bishop.
"We can fix this," the bishop tells Father Dave.
"Inside the church. We have experience and we can solve the problem in our own way. That is our strength."
"It is a criminal matter," Father Dave replies. "That is how it will be fixed."
"It," however, is fuzzy, as in a Graham Greene novel -- with extenuating circumstances and sheer humanity blurring the landscape, presenting an excruciating moral dilemma.
There is a touching exchange between Father Dave and his mother, as they face the scandal. "But what about your friend, your God?" she asks. And Father Dave replies, "I believe God is present in all this, too."
Why Father Dave became a priest in the first place becomes a great something that he must examine. How the townspeople react is another revelation, with both the expected and the unexpected, a mix of vitriol and compassion, the latter from the most surprising of townsfolk.
From the opening tea with Father Dave's remarkable mother to Father Dave's unforgettable descriptions of performing a country wedding, and sharing a drop or two with Mrs. Poole's alcoholic husband, "Be Near Me" is a book to reread.
First published in Britain, where it was a contender for the Booker Prize, the novel is now being adapted for stage while its Scottish author, O'Hagan, also editor of a new selection of Robert Burns' poetry, helps prepare a film on Burns for the BBC.
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.
Be Near Me
By Andrew O'Hagan
305 pages, $24