The Rye Man by David Park

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Started: 11th July
Finished: 14th July
Why I have it: The library is currently feeding my book addiction!


“The Rye Man” by David Park is an obscure book published in 1994. Frankly it’s obscure for a reason. It tells the story of John Cameron, a primary school teacher who has just been given the position of headmaster in his old primary school. As he takes up this position he is haunted by memories of an event which made him the local hero, while his wife is battling a depression brought on by their collapsing marriage and lack of a child. The reader is drawn in with a promising synopsis, which includes lines such as “The Rye Man is a compelling and powerful novel about the links between past and present…” Having reviewed “When God was a Rabbit” last week I was immediately intrigued by a book which was written with a similar premise. However from the first line, Park let’s you down. He begins with a frankly clichéd opening line, “I still had time to change my mind.” Maybe I’ve turned cynical over the years but that had me rolling my eyes and wanting to point him in the direction of a creative writing class. But not one to give up on a book I persevered.

For unknown reasons Park spends the first 50 pages of the story describing in detail his first day as headmaster. This doesn’t add anything to the plot and there are so many characters introduced that I found myself going back to double-check who exactly people were. For a time I enjoyed the interactions of the characters, but after having sat through pages of him describing an interminable staff meeting, reading it changed from escapism to work. There were hints to the wider plot scattered throughout the book but it was as if they were stuck in as an afterthought. It made the text clunky and unnatural. At times it was reduced to a level of bad novice writing, where everything must be explained in precise detail. If the protagonist (and I use that term loosely) opens the door then I found myself reading about how he went through it, closed it, locked it and then continued on his journey. At other times in the novel Park’s writing was so obscure that I was left completely lost, not knowing if I was reading about the past, present or the future. At times like this only references to his ‘mammy’ killing him over ruining his shoes hinted that I was reading about his childhood or at least had me hoping I was.

Something which I found extremely strange is the fact that David Park is actually a teacher himself. This in and of itself was a normal piece of trivia only for the fact that I only looked it up because he was so bad at writing teacher interactions with both pupils and other staff members. The word to describe it would be downright inappropriate. In the case of the teachers he appeared to talk about their personal lives in full view of the class, while in the case of the students the following line had me fleeing to the ‘About Author’ section in horror, “He playfully and gently pulled at one of her locks.”

50 pages into a book (especially a 200 page book) I expect to be completely lost in the narrative but in this instance I found I was still no wiser as to what the actual plot was. It was still introducing the story, which is acceptable in a large book, but in a book the size of “The Rye Man” I expect some sort of complication to have presented itself past simple references to a ‘loss’. A loss which when revealed does not add anything to the overall plot. It actually serves to alienate the reader as this had appeared to be the big mystery of the novel but instead the answer is thrown at the reader. From that moment on Park makes a habit of throwing revelations in the fashion of a young student throwing an answer out to his teacher. Relief that he’s managed it is evident but the answer is left shapeless, leaving the hard work to the observer, in this instance the reader. While my experience of contemporary literature is limited (for the moment) I doubt I’ll come across a book which appeared to promised so much and delivered so little. Though I would have hated for it to be longer it feels as though Park spent the entirety of the book setting up the story and rushed the ending which made the whole book seem pointless. There are so many unanswered questions but unlike other books I feel they were left unanswered because Park either forgot about them or just simply could not explain what he had produced. How this was ever published is beyond me!

Grade: F


P.S Kate gives her apologies for the lack of a review last week. (Don’t worry I’ll make her do two!)