BOOK: Camp-fires and communists

SHELTER by Jayne Anne Phillips Faber £14.99
THE action of Jayne Anne Phillips' second novel beats obsessively back and forth over the same small patch of ground, a summer camp for girls in West Virginia and the woods that encircle it. She has set her novel pointedly in 1963 and the reader is uncomfortably aware that looming outside the timescale of the novel is the killing of John Kennedy. One of the holidaying girls even has a brother nicknamed John-John. This is clearly the last golden summer before the loss of innocence. All the centra l characters - finely drawn children and adolescents - will emerge from the events of the vacation with a new capacity to understand violence, unreason and themselves.

Innocence is menaced on all sides: by the purely benign action of time, but also, more obscurely, by the real world outside the artificial civilisation of the camp. It is part of Phillips' strategy to ensure that the precise nature of the threat isn't spelled out too soon. Throughout the third-person narrative, point-of-view shifts between two sisters, Lenny and Alma, Buddy, the camp cook's son, and Parson, prowling and observing from his hide in the woods. The introduction of this ex-convict with religious delusions seems almost laughably melodramatic, until it becomes clear that Parson, for all his terrifying history of neglect and abuse, is in a state of grace.

Religious conviction is woven into the fabric of the book. Buddy Carmody's church-going mother, the fat cook Hilda, is the most straightforwardly good character: patronised or ignored by the girls, fighting to protect her small son from the attentions ofher drunken husband. But Buddy is a wood-elf; her religion frightens him, and her morality is powerfully contradicted by his brutal stepfather. "Up the Airy Mountain" means much more to him than do his mother's Bible tales.

The novel sets up a series of dichotomies between outside and in, male and female, the wild versus the cultivated, society versus the outsider. Like beaters closing in on an unsuspecting animal, the figures from the outside world bear down on the camp: the workmen paid to maintain this female idyll; the damaged drunk Carmody; the animist Pan-figure Parson, haunting the woods and erecting stones and shrines.

Inside the camp, Phillips has fun with the rituals: all that marching and singing (the girls are forever bursting into "Rocka My Soul"), the Heritage Class where fussy Mrs Thompson-Warner, the camp directress, delivers daily warnings about the Communists.

It's a long, slow, diffuse novel, but the expectation that there is indeed something nasty in the woodshed keeps the reader going. As point-of-view shifts between the children and Parson, the limits of their comprehension and the texture of their consciousness is suggested. Phillips is skilled at fixing points of awareness with sharp images, but her prose is sometimes a clear glass through which to view the action, sometimes a veil, sometimes a fog bank. The girls' experiences are always filtered through their memories; Alma in particular is much puzzled over the suicide of her best friend's father, whom she once saw kissing, almost devouring, her mother. But such musings, which flash through the brain in seconds, take minute s to read before the next welcome input of sense-data signals a return to here-and-now narrative.

When the long-deflected climax does arrive, down by the river at Turtle Hole, Phillips instantly cuts away to the insouciance of Alma and her friend Delia innocently making their way towards the scene. The effect is the reverse of suspenseful: it slacke n s the tension. Phillips works to distil the poetry of ordinary experience, but sometimes this trick doesn't quite come off. At breakfast, Alma, admiring Hilda Carmody's soft bread rolls, "wanted the bread to have been grown by the body of a woman, laidl ike eggs from her private parts". This is an arresting image, but one can't image a teenage girl "wanting" any such thing. In many ways, this is a book to admire - fervently - rather than enjoy.