Like Zoe Heller's excellent Notes from a Scandal, the novel takes as its territory the human story behind familiar tabloid headlines (in this case screaming about a paedophile Roman Catholic priest).
Father David Anderton becomes the parish priest for Dalgarnock, a small town in Ayrshire, Scotland. He's a fish out of water (Oxford educated, middle-class) in a former industrial town with high-unemployment rates and sectarian divisions as clear-cut as those in Ulster, across the water.
He befriends a group of loutish teens from the local school, and becomes a de facto member of the gang, smoking dope, popping E's, drinking, hanging out. He is particularly drawn to a boy called Mark, whom he kisses (and no more) after a night on a bender. The boy tells his father who then blows the whistle, and soon the the whole community is baying for his blood.
I could appreciate O'Hagan's depiction of the teenagers, having taught classes just like this!:
The pupils were waiting in World Religions. they hung over their desks as if they had just been dropped from a great height, looking like their limbs confounded them and their hair bothered them chewed the frayed ends of their sweaters in the style of caged animals attempting to escape their own quarters. They tended to wear uniform, though each pupil had customized it with badges and belts and sweatbands, you felt they had applied strict notions of themselves to the tying of their ties and the sticking up of their shirt collars. the small energies of disdain could be observed in all this, and the classroom fairly jingled with the sound of forbidden rings and bracelets.David Anderton is a more difficult character to work out, since we are only gradually permitted to piece together his past. I didn't find him easy to sympathize with - he lacks conviction in his calling, he comes across as weak and ineffectual and simply to be going through the motions of running his parish.
It is a bit of a stretch that a parish priest should be so attracted to a group of yobbish teens that in some senses he seeks to emulate them, but O'Hagan does make the relationship seem credible ... and even inevitable.
Father David is attracted to the teenagers, and particularly to Mark, for their exuberance and their certainty (even when wrong-headed) and perhaps too for their sheer recklessness which contrast with his own lack of conviction and inertia. He clearly takes pleasure in experiencing life vicariously through them.
The title of the book is a line from Tennyson's In Memoriam and, as Hilary Mantel says, (reviewing the book in the Guardian) it is a prayer whispered by this celibate priest on all those lonely nights, still longing for the lover who was killed in a car accident decades before. It's a blow Father David hasn't recovered from. A sense of loss permeates the novel.
Would I recommend the book? Honestly - I'm not sure that it would appeal to the average Malaysian reader who might find it too slow and the setting perhaps too unfamiliar. (I carry the voices of the members of my book club around in my head - I know how they would react!)
But if you enjoy the kind of contemporary British literary fiction which finds its way onto Booker shortlists and longlists, you should find the novel extremely rewarding.
I did enjoy it very much because I so admired O'Hagan's craft: he writes beautifully (although some reviewers have felt that he rather overwrites) and I relished the language. Scenes were so vividly rendered, that I was watching the movie in my head. (British. Arty. Slow.) I also really liked Mrs. Poole the housekeeper whom I felt was particularly well-drawn.
Much better reviews than mine - Sean O'Brian's in the Independent and Andrew Ng's a few weeks back in StarMag. (Who says our local reviewers don't cut the mustard?)