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BOOK REVIEW / Love among the gargoyles and ghettos of Belfast: 'Telling the Pictures' - Frank Delaney: HarperCollins, 14.99 pounds

FOR a novel so overladen with suspicion and betrayal, Telling the Pictures, set mainly in Belfast after the Blitz (the year is 1942), lacks knotted suspense and verbal charisma. What it does possess is a hungry narrative eye, firmly set on a celluloid spin-off; plus an intermittent pretension to seriousness - pages of sociological footnotes, the potted history of sectarian divisions - and a didactic, almost missionary zeal.

Frank Delaney's expository talents have served him well in his better-known guise as a literary critic (host of the BBC programme Bookshelf) and as a guide through the television history of The Celts. His discoveries lie in works of art, not in life's crucible, the smell of which never quite infiltrates his fiction.

Belle McKnight, his Belfast millgirl, is a fantasist, a fact which - in the novels's final confrontational scenes - proves her undoing. Every morning, amid the racket of linen-making, Belle enthralls workmates 'with the story of the film she saw last night'. Now Gone with the Wind has at last reached the city. Belle describes Rhett and Scarlett's spats of love, in the turbulence of the civil war, to an audience familiar with north- south conflict.

Belle's claustrophobic, working- class background commands the foreground for much of the novel, a ghettoscape loaded with native colour, acerbic wit, slogans and shibboleths. Belle's mother Edith, greedy, mean-minded, rules the house like a gargoyle-in-residence. Her brother Lennie, a B-Special policeman, is a glowering, bullying cipher.

Not that Belle's emotional and psychological reach is notably greater. By comparison with those other fictional heroines from that bleak city - Brian Moore's alcoholic spinster Judith Hearne, or Janet McNeill's eponymous vixen, Sarah Vincent, in The Maiden Dinosaur - Belle McKnight comes alive only by dint of external forces. She lacks the momentum of an inward obsession.

The dustjacket suggests that the novel is a comprehensive paradigm of the Troubles of today. But Delaney - wisely and conspicuously - never attempts this feat.

Significantly, the spectrum of Catholic life is not revealed, nor is the range of Catholic attitudes towards the war, or towards the opportunistic 'campaign' of the IRA. Only the character of Gene Comerford, a Catholic, provides an exception. He has come from Tipperary carrying chivalry like a trophy. When he rescues Belle from rough seduction by the mill owner's son, the soap-operatic consequences are written - like all tribal shibboleths in Belfast - on the wall.

Their foredoomed romance swims against a cacophony of dissent. Love means betrayal. In a community where local fidelity is all-important, Belle's liaison is subversive, a threat to what working-class Protestants see as their ascendency.

That they are myopic about both Comerford and their putative ascendancy is the source of the novel's pathos. Mingled with rampant paranoia, this myopia breeds conspiracy and a plot that stretches suspension of disbelief beyond the limits of elasticity. Can Comerford be the villain, the IRA terrorist and murderer, he is made out to be? Is Belle a potential killer? Will the institutions of law deal out justice, or follow the prejudicial line of least resistance that keeps Belfast's sectarian tendencies on the tracks?

The novel's denouement - double murder, false accusation, the lovers' trials - answers these questions. For this is a novel without ambiguity. Its endgame achieves a sharpness and resolution which rally one's interest, though not sufficiently to make us glad that this is the second in a five-part