‘A Month in the Country’ by J. L. Carr

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Monday, February 28, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

Although I’m usually pretty good about writing reviews for books shortly after I finish them, I’ve fallen rather behind recently and find myself faced with a stack of ten books which have been read but not yet reviewed.  At the top of that pile is J. L. Carr’s short novella A Month in the Country and it is reminding me of exactly why I try to write reviews while the books are still fresh in my mind as I’m finding it very difficult to put into words what was so marvellous about this book.  A Month in the Country is quietly brilliant but it is one of those books that is very difficult to catch in the act of being so.

The story is told as the memoir of Tom Birkin, a scarred and shell shocked survivor of the Great War, of the summer when he spends a month staying in the bell tower of the church in Oxgodby while he works on uncovering a medieval wall painting there.  It is a chronicle of the work he does and the characters he meets as he gradually becomes absorbed into the life of the village.

This is the sort of work which epitomises the phrase ‘small but perfectly formed’: my copy has a mere 111 pages but every single one of those is significant and carefully crafted.  On the one hand it’s a simple story of slow village life, but on the other it’s a narrative of rediscovery and restoration, both of the medieval painting in the church and of Tom Birkin himself, and so the work in Oxgodby church forms an ideal focus for the book.  It encapsulates the themes of the novella, which is tinged with a bittersweet nostalgia which makes for compelling reading.

Just as Tom finds himself inexplicably taking part in activities such as preaching in a sermon in a neighbouring village without really knowing how or why he agrees to it, I found myself being inexorably drawn into Oxgodby’s world of little things; every now and then I would step back from myself and realise that I had been utterly absorbed in a discussion of the comparative merits of different types of furnaces and was genuinely interested in this.  Stoves are, I hasten to add, not normally something I find particularly fascinating, so the fact that I found them, along with every other mundane detail in this book, so very engaging is testament to J. L. Carr’s skill as a writer.   In reading this book, I felt like I spent a glorious month in the country along with Tom Birkin, and it is an experience not to be missed.

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr.  Published by Penguin in association with Harvester Press, 1983, pp. 111.  Originally published in 1980.

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