A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr May10


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A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

“A Month in the Country” recounts the time our hero Tom Birkin spent restoring a mural in an old church in Oxgodby. He’s a veteran of The Great War and hasn’t come away from it unscathed. The work excites him and seems to be just what he needs perhaps to recover from the war but also to satisfy his innate need for solitude.

Having learnt the trade from Joe Watterson who’d told him, “It’s a profession, my boy,” one that would allow him to “starve without competition.” Birkin lands a job from Reverend J.G. Keach by whose wife Birkin is enchanted. The Reverend doesn’t attempt to conceal his contempt, if not for Birkin then for his work. The money could be better spent elsewhere. Nonetheless the job opens up a world of sorts for Birkin not least because of the attentions of some compassionate and welcoming locals such as the teenaged girl Kathy Ellerbeck.

Oxgodby is beautifully bucolic and Carr gives it due regard in the language. There’s something very English about both Carr’s and Birkin’s love of the countryside and it seems especially poignant in light of what Englishmen suffered just a couple of years before in France. Some of the description is idyllic: “Why the place was a latter-day Eden!” More of it is gothic: “the hair rose on my neck and I turned with utmost reluctance, really afraid of what I might see…[the cat] had a fluttering song-thrush clamped in its bloody jaws and glared through the window, malevolently eyeing each of us in turn.”

More than once does nature (in the form of tree branches) encroach on civilisation by pressing against windows. Objects are imbued with a strange sadness; the dysfunction in relationships is obliquely adverted to; the war is something that time and not talking will heal; Birkin’s cold view of life and death is offset by his enthusiasm, even passion, for the mural whose slow uncovering is no doubt a metaphor for something or other the reader can discern for himself. He was taught well by his mentor and is outraged by amateurish, botched attempts to reveal the art prior to his employment. He likes certain characters and appears to have love in him too though some of his private thoughts and instincts make us wonder about him.

The story is told in retrospect and even Birkin himself wonders about his former self: “I’m not the marvelling kind. Or was I then?” He remembers that eponymous period fondly for the most part but yet the constant juxtaposition of life and death, sympathetic characters with unsympathetic colours further any potentially rose-coloured perspective.

For all that there are marvellously warm, affirming moments. The novel is about life and death, happiness and unhappiness, art and work. Like da Vinci reportedly did, Birkin sits “cross-legged like a Hottentot and [thought his] way through the day’s work.” We begin to suspect that more than a means of economic survival, his job is a means of retaining his sanity after the horrors of war: “Our jobs are our private fantasies, our disguises, the cloaks we creep inside to hide.”