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

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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.