A Month in the Country

A Month in the Country
by J.L. Carr
1971 / 132 pages / finished 11/05
rating 8

A quiet book about a young art restorer and his work in a rural church circa 1920.  As the years of dirt and grime get removed from the artwork he has been commissioned to restore and the original painting shines through,  so too do the pasts of the local community members slowly come to light,  and his own heart is also restored.

The plot concerns Tom Birkin, a World War I veteran employed to uncover a medieval wall painting in a village church that was thought to exist under coats of whitewash. At the same time another veteran is employed to look for a grave beyond the churchyard walls.   Though Birkin is an atheist there is prevalent religious symbolism throughout the book, mainly dealing with judgment. The novel explores themes of England’s loss of spirituality after the war, and of happiness, melancholy, and nostalgia as Birkin recalls the summer uncovering the mural, when he healed from his wartime experiences and a broken marriage. In an essay [1] for Open Letters Monthly, Ingrid Norton praised the novel’s subtlety:
“The happiness depicted in A Month in the Country is wise and wary, aware of its temporality. When he arrives in Oxgodby, Birkin knows very well life is not all ease and intimacy, long summer days with “winter always loitering around the corner.” He has experienced emotional cruelty in his failed marriage. As a soldier, he witnessed death: destruction and unending mud. But the edges are brighter for it. Birkin’s idyll in the country is brought into relief by what Birkin has gone through in the past and the disappointments that, it is implied, await him. Carr’s great art is to make it clear that joy is inseparable from the pain and oblivion which unmake it.”

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