BOOK REVIEW / Innocence chained in a barn: 'The Rye Man' - David Park: Jonathan Cape, 14.99 pounds

APPROPRIATELY enough, for a work concerned with children and childhood, the title of David Park's second novel is a direct reference to Salinger, and in particular to the dream sequence in which Holden Caulfield, engrossed in rescuing the children who stray too close to the cliff edge, defines himself as 'the catcher in the rye'. Certainly this is an apt description of his hero, John Cameron, an immensely decent and humane Irish schoolmaster who believes that he loves children, 'Because they were a living part of himself and because the strength of that love could save them from the shit and sickness of the world.'

Coming as it does a few pages before the novel's end, this admission can be read as a summary of some highly traumatic themes. The early stages of The Rye Man, though, which follow the first day of Cameron's tenure as head of the primary school where he was himself a pupil, have a deceptive winsomeness. Happy that he has managed to combine past experience and present ambition, exulting in the company of his charges, Cameron seems self-evidently 'the right size for the job', as the chairman of his governing board puts it. Only the presence of a pair of time-honoured staffroom malcontents serves up a hint of future trouble.

But beneath the outwardly smooth surfaces of his professional life, there are several fretful undercurrents at work. In particular, Cameron is obsessed with the memory of a shocking incident from his past, when, as a small boy wandering in the County Down countryside, he stumbled upon a mute child chained up in squalor in an isolated barn. At the same time the pain of his wife's miscarriage - symbolised by a caseful of baby clothes in the attic - lies like a shroud over their relationship. Intended as therapy and a kickstart to Emma's stalled career as a painter, the move from Belfast plainly isn't working.

Imperceptibly, as Cameron's job yields up its inevitable quota of setbacks and complaints - a well-meaning liaison with the local Catholic school stirs bitter sectarian memories - personal and professional disenchantments fuse. Their focus is a shy, backward pupil named Jacqueline, whose learning difficulties have been compounded by parental obstinacy and official indifference. Rashly, Cameron pretends that Jacqueline's parents have agreed for her to be assessed by an educational psychologist. The girl's sudden disappearance only confirms his grim conclusion at the end of a fractious governors' meeting: '. . . he felt his life encompassed by meanness, trapped in a small place in a small time, a future already marked out and harnessed.' Intuitively, Cameron is drawn to the child's hiding place, but not before a clutch of carefully concealed interior baggage has spilled out into the corridors of his mind.

Short, spare, giving every impression of having been bulked out to standard length by its miniature format and large typeface, this book is not without its flaws. The conversations between husband and wife, which lie at its core, are over-revelatory, and there is a suspicious neatness to Emma's fluent accusations. The reader might suspect that Cameron's involvement with children is merely egotistical, and be able to deduce that 'from the day you found Maguire's boy you've been living off children'. But in a novel that relies for so much of its effect on understatement this kind of super-articulacy can look slightly forced.

Elsewhere, Park's descriptions of the teaching life - a group of children on a school trip, a small girl crying in a crowded classroom, a schoolteacher traversing a playground - are wonderfully exact. If The Rye Man has a theme, apart from its protagonists' traumas, it is the familiar one of childish innocence, and that innocence needing to be protected. The materials are modest enough, but the result is a work of real seriousness and conviction. Some of the more exhibitionist fictional voices currently clamouring for our attention seem mute in comparison.

Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Jess Glynne is UK number 1

music

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor