J. L. Carr: A Month in the Country (1980)

A Month in the Country

It’s not easy to write about A Month in the Country, but it’s easy to a summarize it. It’s 1920 and Tom Birkin, a man in his late twenties, has come to Oxgodby where he’s hired to spend the summer uncovering a medieval mural in the church. Birkin is a man who feels unmoored. He has a facial twitch, a legacy from his time in the trenches, no money, and his wife ran off with another man. Coming from London to the north of England, he feels like he’s in enemy territory at first, but the stationmaster’s warm welcome and the offer of friendship from the archeologist Moon, a veteran like Birkin, make him soon feel at home. His keen sense of detail and his fondness of things, people, flora and fauna, soon help him to recover. Birkin enjoys these blissful, enchanted moments in the country and even falls in love. As the days go by, he becomes more and more part of the village life, uncovers the stunning wall-painting, and makes friends. The book ends with the first days of autumn and a dramatic, tragic twist, which illustrates that even really awful things we experience are often not as fatal as our own hesitations.

That rose  . . . Sara van Fleet . . . I still have it. Pressed in a book. My Bannister-Fletcher, as a matter of fact. Someday, after a sale, a stranger will find it there and wonder why.

In a review, I read that this was an account of happiness, which puzzled me. Yes, we are told that Birkin was happy, but we never feel it. Or rather, I never felt it, because the narrator of this story isn’t the young Birkin, but the old Birkin looking back. And we also know, early on, that his life didn’t turn out happy and that he mourns not only this summer but a whole way of life that’s long gone in 1978.

She lived at a farmhouse gable end to the road – not a big place. Deep red hollyhocks pressed against limestone wall and velvet butterflies flopped lazily from flower to flower. It was Tennyson weather, drowsy, warm, unnaturally still. Her father and mother made me very welcome, both declaring they’d never met a Londoner before.

A Month in the Country is a stunning book. Not so much for the story but for the fine observations and subtle descriptions. And most of all for the structure and use of time. There’s very little backstory clogging up the story; only a few sentences, inserted here and there, paint a full picture of what happend before. What’s masterful as well is that not only does the narrator look back but he writes about himself in 1920 and how he did then look back at his time in the trenches. This really gives away the main theme of the novel – the passing of time and the fleetingness of life.

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.

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 marvellous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.

The painting Birkin uncovers illustrates this perfectly. It is more than just a story element, it’s a symbol. It’s magnificent but has been covered up. Nobody knows why. It’s a painting of a man at the height of his art but it’s not finished, Yet, you can see that he wasn’t an old man. The brushstrokes are too vigorous. So why did he stop? Birkin uncovers it all in the end

Death and the passing of time are ever present in the book and all the joy that Birkin experiences—the Sunady meals with the stationmaster, the strong tea in a tea room, his early morning talks with Moon, the funny outings with the villagers, talking to the woman he’s in love with— it all speaks of bliss but it is tainted with sorrow. Carr achieves this through authorial intrusions, which never allow that we stay in the moment, but always remind us that the moment is long gone and the man telling us about it is looking at things past.

I liked him from that first encounter: he was his own man. And he liked me (which always helps). God, when I think back all those years! And it’s gone. It’s gone. All the excitement and pride of that first job, Oxgodby, Kathy Ellerbeck, Alice Keach, Moon, that season of calm weather—gone as though they’d never been.

I can’t praise this novel enough and would really like to urge everyone to read it. It’s not only a joy to read but illustrates what great writing can do. It will be on my “best of list” at the end of the year and I might even add it to my all-time favourites.

I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes

It would be like someone coming to Malvern, bland Malvern, who is halted by the thought that Edward Elgar walked this road on his way to give music lessons or, looking over to the Clee Hills, reflects that Housman had stood in place, regretting his land of lost content. And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart— knowing a precious moment gone and we not there.

I first read about A Month in the Country on Max’s blog here and knew right away it would be a book for me.