A Month in the Country had been getting so many rave reviews over the years, that I can’t believe it took me so long to get to it. It is as fabulous as everyone said it was.
A Month in the Country is a gorgeous novella of sheer perfection portraying themes of the transient nature of time, the fleeting moments of happiness, and the process of healing through the restorative power of art.
Our narrator is Tom Birkin, who is now in his 70s, telling us the story of that particular period in his youth, a time that holds a special place in his heart.
Rewind to the summer of 1920 and Birkin who had been a soldier in the First World War, arrives in the idyllic village of Oxgodby in Yorkshire on a mission. Birkin is a shattered man, having suffered from shell shock, which physically manifests in the form of a twitch when he is stressed. With a past he would like to forget, and a future that is uncertain, Birkin is looking for some solace in the present by plunging headlong into a project requiring a skill he possesses.
The village church has been left a legacy on the condition that a suspected medieval wall painting above the chancel arch should be expertly restored. Birkin has been commissioned to complete this task – to clean away the elements that have obliterated the painting over the ages. The mural is around 500 years old and appears to depict a typical scene of Judgement where the virtuous enter the gates of heaven and the sinners are condemned to the fires of hell.
Birkin is happy to stay in the church belfry since he has no money to pay for formal lodgings. As Birkin begins to settle down in his new, bucolic surroundings, he and the reader are introduced to a slew of characters. The vicar, a taciturn man named Keach, is against the idea of restoring the painting, but really has no say in the matter, since the terms and conditions have already been set in stone by the benefactress, the late Mrs Hebron. Birkin, meanwhile, strikes a friendship with the archeologist Charles Moon, also a fellow soldier. Having suffered similar hellish experiences of war and tragedy in love, Birkin and Moon are in a way cut from the same cloth and understand each other. Moon has been commissioned to locate the burial site of Mrs Hebron’s ancient ancestor.
We are introduced to the Ellerbacks – the stationmaster and his family including his young, teenaged daughter Kathy – at whose residence, Birkin is regularly invited for Sunday dinners. And last but not the least, is Alice Keach, the vicar’s wife and a stunningly beautiful woman. Birkin finds himself attracted to her and often contemplates on her marriage with Keach, of what could possibly have brought about a union between the two.
To reveal anything more would be to spoil the plot, so I will touch upon some essential themes that give the novella such a rich flavor.
At its core, A Month in the Country is about finding peace, contentment and a sense of purpose through the healing power of art. The restoration of the wall painting can be interpreted as a metaphor for Birkin looking to restore his sense of self.
You know how it is when a tricky job is going well because you’re doing things the way they should be done, when you’re working in rhythm and feel a reassuring confidence that everything’s unraveling naturally and all will be right in the end. That’s about it: I knew what I was doing – it’s really what being professional means.
The novella also explores the notion of what constitutes hell. There is the depiction of biblical hell in the mural, but what about hell on earth? After all, Birkin, traumatized, has experienced his own version of hell on the battlefields. Birkin, meanwhile, displays a flair for his craft, as he assiduously works on the mural, slowly but surely revealing its true splendor. It dawns on him that what he has uncovered is a masterpiece by a painter unknown to the world.
Who was he! I couldn’t even name him. People don’t seem to understand those far-off folk. They simply weren’t us. Our idea of personal fame was alien to them. This man of mine, for instance, knew nothing of earlier artists, so why should he suppose anyone would want to know anything of him? So it wouldn’t occur to him to sign his work.
Awash with the blazing heat of summer, Oxgodby also represents a microcosm of the idyllic village life, a place where time stands still, where the pace is slow, and life is simple. All of this provides a therapeutic tonic to Birkin, a soothing balm for his bruised soul, as he begins to cherish the place and make new friends.
Day after day that August, the weather stayed hot and dry. These days we call it real holiday weather but, then, only the well-to-do in those parts went far afield and even a week at Scarborough was remarkable. Folk stayed at home and took their pleasure from an agricultural show, a travelling fair, a Sunday-school outing or, if they had social pretensions, a tennis party with cucumber sandwiches…
…And this steady rhythm of living and working got into me, so that I felt part of it and had my place, a foot in both present and past; I was utterly content.
But there is so much more going on. Certainly, the reader can feel a whiff of romance in the air – Will Birkin’s attraction to Alice Keach transform into something more than just a longing? An aura of mystery surrounds the wall painting – a man with a crescent on his forehead is depicted falling into the flames of hell. Who is this man and why was his image obscured immediately after the painting was completed all those years ago?
We are also compelled to ask ourselves – Can we truly preserve the past and what are its repercussions on the future? Moreover, the book frequently alludes to the ephemeral nature of time, how those flashes of joy if not snatched could be lost forever.
If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvelous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.
Seen through sepia-tinted lens, Carr’s prose is sublime whether he is describing the lazy, languid summers, the vibrancy of the painting as it comes alive, the longing for those heady, tranquil days of the past, or while capturing instances of piercing sadness.
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.
Teeming with a tinge of nostalgia, an evocative art mystery and a scent of romance, A Month in the Country is a delicious confection meant to be savoured. I adored this novella.