Park’s 1994 novel, The Rye Man, is
filled with anxieties of different varieties. Most apparently, in a work about
childhood, there is an anxiety over how to protect childhood innocence, with
the novel’s title a nod to Holden Caulfield. Anxiety, however, permeates,
coalesces and, ultimately, defines much of the rest of the novel as well, from
characterisation and thematic concerns to time, place, and symbolism.
The motif of the big house is, in fact, central to The Rye Man, in a novel imbued with a type of shifting, rural psychogeography, which emphasises the importance of place and the emblematic power that place can have upon the individual. The continuing power of the big house as a potently unsettling space in modern Northern Irish writing in general should not be underestimated; it has remained a potent symbol in late twentieth and early twenty-first century fiction in Ireland both north and south, in genres as diverse as chick lit, science fiction and the modern gothic. Examples in northern writing can be found in Ian McDonald’s King of Morning, Queen of Day (1991), Niki Hill’s Death Grows on You (1991), Briege Duffaud’s A Wreath Upon the Dead (1993) or in writing from south of the border such as J.G. Farrell’s Troubles (1970), John Banville’s Birchwood (1973) and The Newton Letter (1982) and Nuala O’Faolain’s My Dream of You (2001). There are four key spaces within The Rye Man: the Victorian house that has been converted into a hospital that John, the novel’s narrator, is mysteriously visiting at the beginning of the novel for reasons as yet unknown to the reader; the old rectory house that is plagued by a terrible smell and which feels too big and dark for John and his wife; the old primary school which has been upgraded somewhat since John was a pupil but which remains essentially the same school, and ‘the Maguire place’ where the novel’s central horrific incident occurs.
The old rectory house in which John and his wife, Emma, have recently moved to at the beginning of the novel, is filled with a foul stench, the source of which remains evasive, despite extensive investigation by the homeowners, a plumber and the local council environmental health department. The house itself is equally evasive and seemingly impervious to all attempts to make it into a home and it remains, therefore, unsettling as a space. Despite the couple's plans to refurbish the house and convert some of the outbuildings into a studio for Emma to paint in, their endeavours meet with only limited success. John is plagued by nightmares about an incident from his childhood which occurred at the nearby Maguire place and about the baby he and his wife have lost, a nightmare in which ‘no matter how much he tries to force his way to the crying child the distance always remains the same’ (p.72). When Emma and John plant new shrubs in the garden, they are eaten by rabbits before they get a chance to take root and when Emma begins trying to paint the outhouse, she exhausts herself before admitting ‘it’s a bigger job than I thought – the walls don’t take the paint very well’ (p.48). Even after a few months, the house does not seem to have got much closer to Emma’s vision of a dream home, a vision derived from ‘months of looking in magazines devoted to soft-focussed pictures of country life, all washed in a kind of pastel-coloured pastoralism’ (p.49).
In fact, life in the old rectory for the couple is the exact opposite of this pleasant aesthetic, as their home is beset by the noxious, overpowering stench of sewage:
They had noticed the smell several weeks after they had moved in…it inflated the whole room until it was stretched taught with a septic stink…Then, as suddenly as it came, it would disappear. They made jokes about the Amityville Horror but the joke was beginning to wear thin (p.45).
The connection between the mysterious stench of decay and the couple’s faltering relationship is underlined on the night when John returns home from work and it appears that Emma has unexpectedly gone out. John arrives home to find:
the house was in darkness…the whole place was enveloped by a stillness…He looked into rooms and switched on lights in an attempt to dispel the darkness which seemed to flow from the sullen corners and hallway. The bathroom door was closed but there was no reply to his call and when he opened it he was aware immediately of the smell – gaseous, septic, angrier than it had been for a long time (p.158).
Although he does not articulate it, even to himself, it seems clear to the reader from the tension in this section that John's unspoken concern is that he suspects that Emma has left him or even, given her isolated and depressed state following the miscarriage she had some months before the narrative begins, possibly harmed herself. Although John eventually finds Emma sitting crying in the attic among the baby things that had been put away, the scene between the couple ends inconclusively. Emma is still distraught, although John thinks that she is ‘finding a control again’ and he reassures her that everything will be fine while acknowledging to himself that he is lying to her. Ultimately, despite all their efforts to renovate the property and to preserve their relationship, the rectory house remains resolutely unheimlich, seemingly impervious and resistant to all the couple’s attempts to make it into their home: ‘it was obvious, although not expressed, that the place was too big for them. There were too many rooms, too many spaces which remained unfilled and each one reminded of the absence of family’ (p.101).
The proximity of the couple’s home to the Maguire place is also troubling. As a child John climbs trees in a copse a few miles from his home and discovers that he can see into the house of a neighbour, Mrs Maguire, a widow whose only daughter is grown up and living in England. John passes prosaic hours over the course of several weeks spying on her from the shelter of the trees, telling himself it is i’ (p.81). However, his voyeurism yields unexpected and frightening results when John discovers a sobbing boy confined in a filthy, putrid smelling barn. Their fingertips touch briefly in a moment of unexpected connection and John panics and runs to find his father. When brought into the daylight, the child is revealed to be simultaneously pathetic and horrific to the young John: ‘a tiny blur of white with dark hollows of eyes…Hair smirched and sodden by shit…his skinny sticks of legs were bowed and misshapen and covered in pussed scabs like scum on the surface of stagnant water’ (p.88). The circumstances surrounding the child’s birth and his enforced, inhumane confinement are never made clear but Mrs Maguire goes to jail for some years and then is rumoured to have moved to England on her release, while the boy is taken into care.
The Maguire place has long stood empty but it continues to have a potent effect on John and when he stumbles across it again as an adult ‘his memory and the present [fuse] in a fleeting pulse of fear…there was a tightness in his stomach’ (p.76). Such is the resonance of this gruesome place to John that later in the novel when a child from the school of which he is headmaster goes missing he becomes utterly fixated with the idea that this place, which is now a ruin, is where she will have gone:
Maguire’s place. He would find her in Maguire’s place. He should have seen it. The pattern had its own power, its own inevitability, and he felt it now flooding over the years, carrying him towards what he should have always known (p.180).
This piece of knowledge that John feels he should have always known, however, remains elusive and the lost child is in fact found near the old railway instead, which underlines the fact that the Maguire place only holds these powerful, haunting qualities for John.
John also experiences this unsettling feeling in relation to the primary school of which he has just become headmaster at the beginning of the novel. On the first day of school he tells the assembled pupils and staff:
in some ways I’m not really a new boy at all, because quite a long time ago, on a bright September morning just like this, my mother brought me into the same school gates you came through…Of course the school wasn’t exactly the same then as it is now…but some things aren’t too different (p.8).
John is initially optimistic and pleased by his return to take up the position of headmaster in his old primary school and to live in the village he himself grew up in: ‘Familiar territory carried with it a feeling of security, of re-entering the safe world he identified with his childhood’ (p.49). But this security is only possible so long as John ‘shrugs off’ his uneasy thoughts about ‘how close the rectory was to a darker place in his past’ (p.49). John’s disquietude in his new home is mirrored in his feelings about the school:
He had a sudden fear that there may be more skeletons locked in cupboards and at any moment one might spring out at him. He had inherited something that still belonged to Reynolds…he wondered if he could ever fully shake it loose from the fossilised firmness of that grasp (p.63).
The metaphorical skeletons in the cupboards obviously symbolise a hidden past John is afraid to unearth but he is also riven with anxiety of influence, fearing he will not be able to step out of the shadow of his predecessor and put his own stamp on the place. This skeletal image, at once fossilised and presumably harmless, yet imbued with a sinister, macabre power, is also key to the conclusion of Park’s next novel, Stone Kingdoms (1996), in which it is the entire city of Belfast which is plagued with a fossilised past:
I think too, for a moment, of a city which petrifies on its own calcerous skeleton, but the memory fades and there is only this other world, fragile and strangely strong, full face to the ocean, a rampart against the ceaseless beat of the waves (p.277).
As A. Jamie Saris has noted, the Sligo-Leitrim District Mental Hospital was referred to by local people in the nineteenth century as ‘an teach mór’ which, when translated literally from Irish, also means ‘the big house’. In Sebastian Barry’s novels, it is the Big House of the local oral tradition that looms over the Sligo community and indeed, Barry’s entire body of work. The reader is introduced to the Big House in the first two pages of The Whereabouts of Eneas Mc Nulty (1998), when we are informed that both of the protagonist’s parents worked in the local mental asylum, stitching clothes for the inmates. Similarly, in The Secret Scripture (2008), the narrative immediately evokes the asylum with the peritext informing us that the narrator, Roseanne, is a patient in Roscommon Regional Mental Asylum, and it is from whence that she recounts her story. The big house in Barry’s sense of the term is also the very first place the reader is introduced to in The Rye Man as John drives to a hospital to visit a patient:
Round the first bend he had a view of the house – old, imposing, probably Victorian, wearing a beard of ivy which had been clipped back sharply from upper windows…. The white window frames looked new but only the television aerials seemed incongruously modern. It felt like driving into the past, a journey that no longer brought its old reassurance because now he knew even the past could change and was fixed only in the faltering and flawed frame of memory (p.2).
The description Park gives of the place is slightly eerie owing to his personification of the house as an old, imposing, bearded Victorian along with the unsettling juxtaposition of new and old, its tucked away location and its occupation of temporally liminal space somewhere between past and present. The identity of the patient John is visiting is unknown to the reader at this juncture but it is, of course, the boy rescued from the Maguire place, who, like John, has now grown up but, reflecting perhaps the main thematic anxiety in the novel, has not been, and cannot be, healed from the trauma he has suffered by a change in location nor by the relentless passing of time. The novel was written and published on the precipice of the 1994 IRA Ceasefire. Twenty-one years later, in a climate of strikes, austerity, accusation and revelations of historical abuse, the anxieties explored in The Rye Man that time alone will not heal the damage caused by conflict and cruelty seems all too relevant and apt.
 A.J. Saris. ‘Mad Kings, Proper Houses, and an Asylum in Rural Ireland’. American Anthropologist. Vol.98, No.3. 1996. 539-554. p.546.