My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Because I’d raved about O’Hagan’s Marilyn Monroe book (as narrated by her dog, Maf), a new literary friend loaned me one of his favourite books, ‘Be Near Me’. To be frank, I was a bit confused by the whole experience. There is an immediate distancing because the narrator can be unlikeable, partly because of his own lack of self-knowledge. It’s evident early on that this fault is going to get him in trouble, and it like watching a slow motion car crash.
Thematically, there was also distancing. As a Canadian living in Australia, the complications of the class divides of the United Kingdom are often beyond me, and this is something that is a key theme of the book: privilege vs non-privilege; education vs non-educated; wealth vs poverty, and all of this on top of a clear English vs Scottish rivalry. And while I’ve certainly read enough stories about the British education system (so many novels set in Oxford and Cambridge, and their environs!), I feel distanced from that milieu as well. It comes through in the narrator’s attachment to ideas, history, philosophy, fine wine, and appreciation for classical music and art. I think of myself as worldly and well-read, but often, the narration of ‘Be Near Me’ made me feel like I was on the wrong side of the tracks, one of the ruffians in smalltown Scotland.
By why should this be? To say that I relate more to 50s North America, Hollywood and a narrator who is, for godsake, a dog, in the O’Hagan novel I loved, seems ludicrious. And in fact, I think what O’Hagan’s novel actually demands is objectivity. He offers an explanation for why the character gets himself into so much trouble, the more sympathetic and in-fact wiser character is his cleaner who values knowledge but comes from a modest background; he draws a truly diverse set of characters who cross classes and political ideologies.
All of this is amidst beautiful writing, and an urgency and narrative that drives the book, which I read rather quickly, considering my reading speed these days, slowed down by TV and other distractions. So, while themes of class divide and religion didn’t engage me, and the consequences of a repressed sexuality were not new to me, all in all, I’m impressed with O’Hagan’s inhabiting of his narrators, his willingness to tackle big issues and some lovely writing, imbued with not a small measure of melancholy and nostalgia.
But if you’ve read this far, and haven’t read his other book, ‘The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe’, please do so. It’s amazing.