Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 84 pages; 2000.
There’s something about J.L. Carr’s Booker-nominated A Month in the Country which feels as if it was written long before its 1980 publication date. The story is a rather gentle and subtle one, ripe with religious symbolism, and it is so evocative of a long-lost English summer that whenever you lift your head from the page you expect to see blue skies, sunshine and fields of yellow-bright rape seed blowing in the breeze.
My edition comes with a rather good introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald, and a short forward by J.L. Carr himself, who says the idea of the book “was to write an easy-going story, a rural idyll along the lines of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree. […] I wanted its narrator to look back regretfully across forty or fifty years but, recalling a time irrecoverably lost, still feel a tug at the heart”.
I’ve not read Hardy’s novel, so I can’t make a comparison, but I think Carr has definitely succeeded on the tug-at-the-heart element.
The story is a simple one about a young English soldier, Tom Birkin, who returns from the Great War and undertakes a special project: to uncover a medieval mural inside a church.
Tom, a Londoner, is not used to rural life. But in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby he finds the peace and quiet an antidote to his military experience, which has left him with a disturbing facial tick.
The marvellous thing was coming into this haven of calm water and, for a season, not having to worry my head with anything but uncovering their wall-painting for them. And, afterwards, perhaps I could make a new start, forget what the War […] had done to me and begin where I’d left off. This is what I need, I thought — a new start and, afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore.
He befriends another former solider — and outsider — at work in the village, Charles Moon, who is looking for a lost medieval grave near the church.
He also develops two key relationships with female residents — 14-year-old precocious schoolgirl Kathy Ellerbeck, and the vicar’s young, beautiful wife, Alice Keach — both of them platonic, although the latter provides a frisson of sexual tension. I won’t spoil it by telling you what happens!
As Tom slowly, methodically sets about gently removing the whitewash from the painting, he comes to know the inner-most workings of the village, its natives and their little secrets. There’s not much more to the story than his gentle adaptation to rural living, the friendships he makes and the recuperative power of time to heal emotional wounds.
A Month in the Country is an understated but heartfelt story. Because it is told from Tom’s point of view, looking back on his younger self, there’s a bittersweet edge to it, tinged as it is with nostalgia and regret. Not bad for a slim book that’s less than 100 pages long.