A Month in the Country

Not the Turgenev but the novel by J.L. Carr: a mere 81 pages (of close text) and a gem.

Tom Birkin is a restorer of wall paintings and in the summer of 1920 arrives in Oxgodby, a small village in the north of England, to uncover a long hidden painting from the Middle Ages that is revealed as a masterpiece. Birkin is a survivor of the Western Front and carries with him the scars, made visible in a violent nervous tic that ripples across his face and a stammer. He is disappointed in love, a wife who has come and gone, come and gone again. Hard up, he lives in the church's belfry, much to the disapproval of the vicar,  who like Birkin is a southerner and who has not been taken into the hearts of his parishioners, unlike Birkin himself.

The novel traces Birkin's slow restoration to the possibility of life, and a moment in time which seized will be an oasis of fine memory, even if future life disappoints (as the narrative suggests it will). It tells of the relationships he slowly forms: with Moon (another survivor, an archaeologist searching ostensibly for a tomb), the family of the stationmaster and Methodist lay preacher, and the Vicar's beautiful, life enhancing wife, with whom he declines the opportunity of an affair.

All the while the narrative unfolds against the backdrop of the painting's uncovering (a Judgement over the chancel arch) and another kind of oasis, an offering from the past that both compels, and yet will one day slide into a feature, amongst other features, of an out of the way church.

As always when this subject arises, I am reminded of my own grandfathers (whom I never knew) but both of whom served on the Western Front and both of whom suffered from what would now be called post traumatic stress disorder (and was then simply shell shock or, worse, malingering) and which helped shape their lives and those of their children. One often retreated into the need for silence out of work and the other retreated to his allotment where his penchant for growing root vegetables, alienated my father from them for life! I often wondered how you might trace the effects generationally: trace histories of the continuance of the realities of war - the dislocations of the fathers inherited by their children.

It is a beautiful book with a wry humour and a vivid sense of the transience of happiness that you can only ever catch on the wing as it flies (to quote Blake) and though it offers no vision of final redemption, it does offer the minute particulars of goodness.

A Month in the Country was made into a faithful and fine film adaptation with Colin Firth as Birkin and Kenneth Branagh as Moon.


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