Short review: JL Carr “A Month in the Country”

Here’s the blurb from the back of the Penguin edition that I’ve just read. It sums up the novel well, but I will add couple of points of my own following the quotation:

J.L. Carr’s A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, first published in 1980 is a gem of a novel which explores the power of art to heal and restore. Tom Birkin, a damaged survivor of the First World War, is spending the summer uncovering a huge medieval wall-painting in the village church of [the ficitious Yorkshire village of] Oxgodby. Joined by another veteran employed to look for a grave outside the churchyard he uncovers old secrets that bear on his experiences of conflict.

It’s not a long book. In fact it’s one of those which in a way are pretty much novella length (such as Henry James’s Daisy Miller or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) but which get classed as novels because of the depth and scope of themes and overall ambition.

Birkin is a specialist, called in as part of the bequest of a recently deceased local woman, one Miss Hebron, charged with uncovering and restoring a wall painting in the local church. His counterpart- Moon- is an archaeologist given the job as part of the same bequest to look for “the grave of Miss Hebron’s forebear, one Piers Hebron” who died in 1373.

Art, and its capactiy to heal and restore through our own contemplation and enjoyment of it, is certainly a key theme of the novel, as the blurb writer alludes to. The steady rhythm of work certainly has a calming effect on the shellshocked Birkin. At one point he states that “this steady rhythm of living and working got into me, so that I felt part of it and had my place, a foot in both present and past; I was utterly content”.

However, it’s also about memory, and our own perceptions of certain events in our lives when we look back. It’s also about people. As the narrator, who is Tom Birkin in later life looking back, says, “God, when I think back all those years! And it’s gone. It’s gone. All the excitement and pride of that first job, Oxgodby, Kathy Ellerbeck, Alice Keach, Moon, that season of calm weather- gone as though they’d never been”.

In fact, the passage I quoted first about having a foot in both present and past see Birkin say a little later on that uncovering “a great work of art wasn’t all of it [i.e. helping to clam him and make him generally  more positive]. There was this weather, this landscape, thick woods, roadsides deep in grass and wild flowers.”

And of course it’s a about the people listed above too, especially the Ellerbeck family who take a shine to Birkin, regularly having him over the Sunday lunch and getting him to help out at the Sunday school they run. And it’s also about Alice Keach, wife of the uptight vicar whose church it is that Birkin is working in. Birkin unquestionably gains much from his carefully practising his craft, which in turn uncovers the work of a great unknown artist in the church, but he also gains a lot from being immersed in a local community which accepts him. His relationship with the Vicar’s wife is altogether more problematic, but it seems even then that he comes away from this brief entangelement stronger in a way.

There’s not much in the way of out-and-out humour in the book, but I found the overall tone of it rather jaunty and matter-of-fact, straight to the point in an engaging way. In a sense this would jar with what we’d understand Birkin’s initial state of mind and general mood to have been, for not only was he shellshocked and plagued by a nervous twitch in his face as a result of his wartime experiences; it also transpires that his unfaithful wife has just run away with another man. However, it’s the old Hemingway-esque trick of making the tone and language jar with what’s being described, in order to make the reader fill in the emotional gap and make the full realisation for themselves.

Birkin’s tone as a narrator looking back is eaxctly what’s required, however, as it emphasises the distance in time and temerament from himself then as a young man in the very early 20s, to himself as an older man looking back at that healing month in the country. That month was the pivot in his life.

(The book was made into a 1987 film, which I’ve never seen, and just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you probably can’t judge an entire film by its trailer. However, on balance I won’t bother to seek out the film. While the book’s core story is strong enough to bear a film adaptation, there is far more depth to this novel than you can really replicate on screen: inevitably too much is lost, and not enough is gained. The tone set by the trailer feels over-serious to me, wheras the book’s various moods are far more lifelike in their ebb and flow, the highs and lows and in-betweens.)

Verdict: A straightforward but very deep book that is satisfying on every level, with pitch-perfect yet uncontrived symbolism. It’s also  a very quick read to boot. Perfect!