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[128] A Month in the Country – J.L. Carr

carr.jpgMan Booker Challenge #1 – Novella Challenge #1

“But oddly, what happened outside was like a dream. It was inside the still church, before its reappearing picture, that was real. I drifted across the rest. As I have said–like a dream. For a time.” (47)

A Month in the Country is conventionally quirky. A veteran of the Great War, Tom Birkin takes up the task of restoring a hidden mural at a church in a small village. It isn’t known earlier in the book why he does so until he scrapes an acquaintance with some of the townfolks especially the wife of the vicar. Enfolded in summer’s heaviness, Birkin labors daily to uncover the lost masterpiece of an anonymous medieval painter with a faith that compensates for the looming pressimism. Devotion to hard work also helps keep his grief of a broken marriage at bay. As the extraordinary depiction of the apocalypse slowly emerges on the wall of the chapel, Birkin also finds that he himself has been restored to a new, and hopeful, attachment to life. So the commission has become also his resurrection. A month in the country, during a bright and propitious season, amidst the picturesque realm and dreamscape, serves as a redeeming experience that restores his senses.

If his life has been overcast by the painful fact that his wife has run away with another man, that Birkin has been buried in bereavement is an analogy to the beautiful mural that was intentionally hidden underneath a thick layer of lime wash. Like his drudgery to scrub away the peel, it’s up to Birkin to bring back true colors and shapes to his life. By the end of summer, with the work done, he must leave the town. But just as he has reflected, an inexplicable numbness, or whatever magic that has befallen him during the few weeks in the country, has rekindled him. He finds in his memories some consolation for all that has been lost.

I leave you with a passage that nails it for me:

“We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours forever—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.” (135)

6 Responses

  1. Wow, this is one of those books I was aware of but didn’t *really* know what it was about. It sounds amazing, and the quote certainly has my interest up.

  2. Like Andi I had heard of this book, but I didn’t realize what it was about. I will have to look for it now. Your China photos are lovely, by the way!

  3. A wonderful review of what sounds like a very poignant and insightful book.

    What an elegant metaphor, a lost mural. And in so many ways it’s true to life: experiences, attachments, all will transmute over time — sometimes fading away, sometimes abruptly terminating; but in some cases, the lucky ones, becoming richer, more complex as the covering is scraped away.

    I love the the quote at the end. We all have passages in our lives like this.

  4. I loved this quiet little book! There was a movie made, maybe in the late 80s, with Colin Firth as Birkin, Natasha Richardson as Alice Keach, and Kenneth Branagh as Moon. I remember thinking it was slow but well done…

  5. This is such a terrific book. I read it a couple of years ago having been aware of it for ages, and it ‘blew me away’ as they say. I have a weakness for that sort of looking-back story structure and the early-20th-century England setting anyway, but to pack so much into 80 pages (in the edition I read) seemed a miraculous achievement.

    Unfortunately when I tried Carr’s later book, The Battle of Pollocks Crossing, also shortlisted for the Booker Prize (in 1985), I couldn’t get on with it at all. Maybe he’s one of those one hit wonders.

  6. […] of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn 16. A Russian Affair, Anton Chekov Tentative List 1. A Month in the Country, J.L. Carr 2. A Shorty History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka 3. The Gathering, Anne […]

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