‘A Month in the Country’ is an exquisite novella, short-listed on publication for the Booker prize back in 1980 at a time when they weren’t so awkward about word-count (this runs to barely 80 pages), and turned into a film with Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth which has its own, fascinating story . Carr only published a handful of short novels in his life, and is a wrongly neglected novelist – so much so that I am going to put him on my alternative ‘Best novels written in English’ list.
‘A Month in the Country’ is narrated by Tom Birkin, and tells of the summer (the pedant in me can’t resist pointing out that the events of the novel take place over the course of the whole summer, not just one month – would ‘A Summer in the Country’ have been a worse title?) of 1920. Back from the horrors of the First World War, Birkin has been commissioned to restore a mural, his rather specialist profession, as part of the whimsical legacy of a local landowner, Miss Adelaide Hebron. He spends his days on the scaffolding within the church, slowly uncovering and restoring the mural depicting Judgment day. His nights are spent in the belfry. The slow, quiet work is in some ways a therapeutic part of his recovery from a bad case of shell shock. He is accompanied by a succession of local figures who come to visit and check on his progress, interested in the curiosity of a visitor to the sleepy Yorkshire village of Oxgodby. He also has a companion of sorts in Charles Moon, employed as part of the same legacy, to try to find the grave of one of Miss Hebron’s ancestors, buried outside the churchyard according to legend.
This is one of those deceptive novels where on the surface little happens, but when you look back there is in fact a huge amount of incident, romance, drama, and superbly rich characterisation. Carr captures the wonder of an English summer with wonderful economy – you can almost hear the bees lazily buzzing as Birkin cycles to church, or chats to Moon over another cup of tea.
Ah, those days…for many years afterwards their happiness haunted me. Sometimes, listening to music, I drift back and nothing has changed. The long end of summer. Day after day of warm weather, voices calling as night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness and, at day-break, the murmur of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young.
The healing process Birkin goes through as he restores the mural in the eaves of the church has another parallel in the healing the country experiences from the war. Moon, camping in the field next to the church in a dugout reminiscent of the trenches, has his own healing processes to go through. He has quickly identified the location of the grave he has been commissioned to find, but strings out his time in Oxgodby exploring the site of a Saxon basilica. Birkin is slowly engaged in the life of the local community, umpiring cricket matches and even taking a service at a nearby chapel. All the while his understated romance with the vicar’s wife is blooming – even though there is little to the relationship beyond a few chaste glances and words. He understands that her marriage is, like his own, mistaken and unhappy, and the climax of the novel is reached when he has the opportunity to reveal his feelings, certain they will be reciprocated. The moment agonisingly passes, and once gone cannot be recaptured.
I’ve not really even started to unravel the complexity and beauty of this exceptionally well-written, delicately drawn novel. I have never read anything that captures so well the sense of loss:
“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 fields, a bed on a 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 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.”