It’s a book that savours a lingering melancholy, that regret for a moment past. It’s a book about loss and healing. It’s poetic, compelling, haunting.
J.L. Carr’s 1980 A Month in the Country is a near-perfect novella. At just 135 pages it accomplishes what many writers fail to achieve in many more pages in that it fully realised characters; holds a teasing, twisting, gently beguiling plot; is written in exquisitely spare, evocative prose that nonetheless captures the warmth and beauty of a certain summer and, most importantly, in a few jewel-like chapters it’s able to explore universal themes – life, death, forgiveness, history, belonging – with precision, brevity and wisdom.
We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours forever — the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on the belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.
The plot concerns Tom Birkin, a World War I veteran employed to uncover a medieval mural in a village church that was thought to exist under coats of whitewash. At the same time another veteran is employed to look for a grave beyond the churchyard walls. Though Birkin is an atheist there is prevalent religious symbolism (centring in the day of Judgement) running throughout the novel as Carr deftly explores England’s loss of spirituality after World War I.
A Month in the Country is an articulation of the transitory nature of experiences and the bittersweet joys of recalling long since passed memories. It’s a snapshot in time. It’s about an old man telling a story that did or didn’t happen in the summer of 1920.
The happiness depicted in A Month in the Country is wise and wary, aware of its temporality. When he arrives in Oxgodby, Birkin knows very well life is not all ease and intimacy, long summer days with “winter always loitering around the corner.” He has experienced emotional cruelty in his failed marriage. As a soldier, he witnessed death: destruction and unending mud.
But the edges are brighter for it. Birkin’s idyll in the country is brought into relief by what Birkin has gone through in the past and the disappointments that, it is implied, await him. Carr’s great art is to make it clear that joy is inseparable from the pain and oblivion which unmake it.
From an essay by Ingrid Norton
The sense of things lost to time is pronounced but not overplayed and there’s a gently elegiac quality to the developing picture of a warm and hazy English countryside summer. This pleasant vision is countered by his rawer and more acute account of the deep mark left on a man when a chance of happiness is glimpsed and missed and left to settle in the memory.
Quote from The Guardian Review
My Penguin Modern Classics copy of this powerful, lyrical, sensitive portrayal of the memory and healing includes an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald, author of Offshore.
A Month in the Country acknowledges how important it is to understand the irretrievable nature of the passage of time and the need to savour the good times that come along.
Physical, emotional, and mental healing through the work and the timeless ritual and routine of the land, are all here. It is a story, gloriously written, of remembrance of an experience in which, in a sense, time stood still, and every small event and meeting became a treasured moment in a treasured, but ever so brief period of time…
A Month in the Country is a book about a wounded man’s resurrection, but it is also a haunting tale of the underlying unfulfillment of a man too damaged to grab on to the opportunity of a moment, and a lifetime’s soul-searching that resulted from that decision.
Sweet, powerful and memorable A Month in the Country is a must read.
(The illustrations in this Book Review are not specifically to do with the book and don’t represent the fictional wall painting uncovered in the story. They’re simply the result of typing ‘Medieval wall paintings’ into a search engine… Fortuitously the images seem to reflect some of the books concerns…)