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Saturday 23 July 2011

A Month In The Country

by J L Carr

Somehow or other I managed to reach the age of 47 without ever reading J.L. Carr’s brilliant novella, ‘A Month in the Country’, or seeing the film-of -the-book. Half of that deficiency, at least, has now been rectified.

Being an expansive sort of writer myself (for which, read rambling and verbose), I am always amazed by what other authors can manage to convey in a small space – and Carr crams a whole world of feeling and ideas into just 85 short pages. I read the book in a few hours and re-surfaced from the experience disorientated, to find nothing around me looking quite the same as it had.

The essential story is simple enough. It is 1920 and Tom Birkin, a twenty-something signaller who survived the trenches physically but still bears the psychological scars, arrives in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby, where he has been commissioned to uncover a medieval wall painting in the church. Birkin beds down for the summer on an army camp-bed in the church tower while, in a field adjoining the churchyard, a fellow war veteran and archaeologist by the name of Moon is also camping out, having been hired to locate the grave of a villager’s fourteenth century crusader forebear, who was excommunicated and buried on unconsecrated ground; she wants him found and brought back within the pale.

The book is hard to encapsulate because it is so many things at the same time. In part, it is a medieval mystery, as we seek the reason for the excommunication of Moon’s old crusader and what his connection might be with Birkin’s re-emerging mural in the church. It is also a love story, tracing the quiet course of Birkin’s undeclared passion for the vicar’s wife. And it is a lyrical, nostalgic portrait of the life of an English village one glorious summer, before the combustion engine drove out plodding hooves, before autumn’s chilly bite and the disappointments of the years, ‘when life is brimming with promise and the future stretches confidently ahead like that road to the hills’.

It is also a book about healing. The wall painting which Birkin brings painstakingly to life is a Judgment – a ‘Doom’. And if the tortured representations of the damned on their descent to hell are an echo of the horrors of Flanders, the English countryside surely represents the Elysian fields, full of the promise of redemption. We watch as Birkin is gradually unlocked from his shell-shocked inner prison, by the sun on his skin, and through tentative steps towards friendship, not only with the lovely Mrs Revd Keach, but with the archaeologist Moon and a small cast of other village characters, all depicted with affection and wit in Carr’s delicate brushwork, as fine as the medieval masterpiece on the chancel arch.

And now for the film. I gather it features a young Colin Firth. (((Do not disturb)))

Reviewed by Rosy Thornton

Rosy Thornton is the author of 'The Tapestry Of Love', 'Crossed Wires', 'More Than Love Letters' and 'Hearts And Minds'.

You can find out more about her at her website here and you can buy her books here.

I'm a big fan of Rosy's books and you can find my reviews of 'The Tapestry Of Love' here and 'Crossed Wires' here.


Suzanne Ross Jones said...

Sounds like an interesting read.

And I'll have to get the film - if only for the young Colin Firth (sigh).

Shirley Wells said...

I loved the novella but haven't seen the film. I must rectify that.