A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr: A sealed room in memory furnished by the past

This is my review of A Month in the Country (Penguin Modern Classics) by J.L. Carr.

Shell-shocked by his high-risk role as a signaller in the carnage of the First World War trenches, and depressed by the break-down of his marriage, Tom Birkin immerses himself in the delicate task of revealing an ancient mural thought to be concealed beneath centuries of lime-wash in an ancient parish church. We see Tom’s growing identification with the artist who created what turns out to be a masterpiece. There are vivid descriptions of the different colours used – “Spaynishe white, Baghdad indigo, Cornish malachite, terre verte”, the relative durability of the paints, and the fine balance needed between cleaning the grime of a painted hand, or finding that “just another touch will shift the hand itself”.

The eccentric old lady who has financed his labours in her will, has also left a bequest for the location of the grave of an excommunicated forbear, who must have been buried outside the cemetery. This work is being undertaken by Charles Moon, beneath his ebullient exterior as damaged by his wartime experiences as Tom, but for different reasons. The two men become friends, with Birkin in particular entering into village life, gaining acceptance and renewed health in the process.

Fifty years later, Tom looks back on this brief period during the long, hot summer of 1920, spent in the close-knit North Yorkshire village, in its as yet unspoilt, idyllic setting . This short novel, drips with nostalgia, Hardy without the grim tragedy of Jude and Tess, an evocation of a past way of life, perhaps a little idealised in that the summer weather is too fine, and the gossip a little too affectionate.

At the core of the novel is the unspoken mutual attraction, the meeting of minds, between Tom and Alice Keach, the improbably lovely young “Botticelli’s Primavera” wife of the pale-eyed vicar, with a “cold, cooped-up look about him”. If Tom and Alice fail to grasp the opportunity for a relationship, will they regret it for the rest of their lives? Is their love derived from the dreamlike quality of a transient period, enhanced by memory, and would it fade and become banal if they acted upon it?

Many incidents are culled from Carr’s own life, since he did not baulk at basing his characters on real people, anonymously, of course. So, the village of Oxgodby is based on Carlton Miniott where he grew up. Birkin’s embarrassment at being sent off by the double-booked station-master-cum-Methodist preacher to lead a tiny congregation, is based on an ordeal imposed on the author by his own father. Alice Keach, unaware of her beauty, may well be modelled on some past love of Carr’s whom the secretive author never revealed.

Perfect in style, structure and pace, for such a short work, this atmospheric, bittersweet tale manages to pack in more moments of comedy alternating with poignancy, and perceptive reflections than many a longer novel. In his subtlety, J.L.Carr can even make us feel a little sorry for the Reverend Keach. This is the kind of book one is sad to finish and likely to read again over the years.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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