This is a novel I had some awareness of, but had never read, never put it in my tbr pile. But when the commemorations for the end of the First World War were taking place last month it appeared on several reading lists. How can I have missed it, ignored it for so long? It’s a jewel and was recognised as such when it was first published in 1980 when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
It’s not just a novel about the damage of war. It is more about the value of having one or two really good experiences in life, about restorative processes and having good times in the past to draw on. If like me you have not taken much notice of it I recommend that you do now.
A Month in the Country by JL Carr
A Month in the Country is set in the 1920s, in a village called Oxgodby, somewhere up north. The narrator is Tom Birkin, a young man, physically damaged and mentally strained during the First World War and recently abandoned by his wife. He has come to the village to restore a mural in the parish church. It is a task he does not relish because he expects the villagers to be unfriendly and the mural to be a disappointment.
Despite being a short novel the characters he meets are all well-rounded people, with their own difficulties and histories. Some are less easy to like, such as the vicar who seems to be unable to see beyond the mundane. He is concerned that Tom’s contract is correctly observed and has little respect for the old boiler that heats the church.
In contrast is Kathy Ellerbeck. Tom is befriended by this child of about 14, the stationmaster’s daughter and who has complete understanding of herself and her village, a love of music and the knowledge of how to relate to Tom.
Then there is Moon, a kind of amateur archaeologist, also damaged during the war, who lives in a tent visible from Tom’s church tower. They strike up a friendship. And the vicar’s wife and the stationmaster and and and …
These are not pastiche yokels like in Cold Comfort Farm, rather they challenge Tom’s sense that companionship will be restricted in a village or by northerners.
He begins the novel in retreat, living alone in the church tower, with few possessions, and an expectation of being treated as an outsider. Instead he finds the month becomes idyllic as he is accepted warmly, admired for his skill and he even falls for the vicar’s wife. Their welcome into the village has a restorative effect on him.
He also encounters and admires great workmanship. It starts with the church boiler but he quickly develops great respect for the artist who created the mural. And later he visits an organ shop in Rippon where there is more to admire.
And the rural landscape, the late summer countryside rituals, the long golden late summer evenings, these also work some kind of magic. Until it is time to leave.
A Month in the Country is very short, too short for anything as definite as chapters. Almost all the narrative relates to the month of the title, there is very little about what preceded this time, or what followed. We learn that Tom was conscripted into the army and had been an Advance Signaller while in action, a role from which few returned. We also find that he did not follow up any connection he made during that month, or revisit the village. He has been writing this account from the perspective of an old man. This is how the novel finishes.
We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the field, 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.
All this happened so long ago. And I never returned, never wrote, never met anyone who might have given me news of Oxgodby. So in my memory, it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long dry on a put-down pen.
But this was something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off across the meadow. (104)
His account of the month in Oxgodby reminds us of the variousness of humans, how we cast people as outsiders for physical deformity, religion, sexuality, place of origin. Beyond those barriers connection, recovery and love can be found.
A Month in the Country by JL Carr, first published in 1980. I read the Penguin Modern Classic edition published in 2000, with an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald. 104pp
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