An impeccably crafted, philosophically framed account of the decline and disgrace of an impressionable Catholic priest.
U.K. author O’Hagan (Personality, 2003, etc.) turns to questions of insight in a beautiful but ruined 21st-century landscape. The protagonist, father David Anderton, is a 56-year-old, half-English, half-Scottish intellectual and aesthete whose tastes for Chopin, Proust and French cuisine sit uneasily with his Scottish parishioners, a wasteland of alcoholic men and dehumanized youth. Anderton, whose claim to have tasted the fullness of life rests on a gay relationship with a political firebrand during the 1960s, has a weakness for stronger personalities, and now falls in with a charismatic teenage trouble-maker, 15-year-old Mark McNulty, who leads the priest into tolerating, then sampling, drugs, and eventually to a stolen kiss. Arrest and criminal charges of sexual abuse follow, forcing Anderton to review his life in the church—“a beautiful hiding place” of increasing appeal after his lover’s early death. O’Hagan deftly juxtaposes absurdly precious scenes of Oxford elitism with a harsh vision of the Scottish provinces, where the working class, now all but irrelevant, has sunk into an existence shaped by booze, mass culture, tribalism and media-fuelled prejudice, as evidenced by the modern witch-hunt that ensues. After Anderton’s trial and conviction comes a coda in which the death, from cancer, of his housekeeper—who doubled as his conscience—opens up an assessment of the nature of love and individual integrity.
O’Hagan’s accomplished prose and casual wit counterbalance his abstraction, aided by fine character portraits, especially that of an intellectually acute but isolated soul condemned by his own fallibility.