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

What can I say about this classic novella that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot, other than it to reiterate just how wonderful it is. A masterpiece in miniature – I loved it.

Set in small Yorkshire village in the heady summer of 1920, Carr’s novella is narrated by Tom Birkin, a young man still dealing with the effects of shell-shock following the traumas of the First World War. A Southerner by nature, Birkin has come to Oxgodby to restore a Medieval wall painting in the local church – much to the annoyance of the vicar, Reverend Keach, who resents the restorer’s presence in his domain. In reality, there is another purpose to Birkin’s visit: to find an escape or haven of sorts, an immersive distraction from the emotional scars of the past.

Naturally, the project brings Birkin into contact with other residents in the village, many of whom are intrigued by his work. There is Moon, an archaeologist and fellow veteran of the war, a point that gives him some understanding of Birkin’s mental condition; Alice Keach, the vicar’s beautiful young wife who seems somewhat out of place beside her husband at the vicarage; and the Ellerbecks, a kindly local family who befriend Birkin, providing him with homemade food to supplement his meagre supplies.

I don’t want to reveal much more about what happens in the novel, other than to give a flavour of some of the keynotes. There’s a touch of romance in the air, an element of mystery in the story behind the painting, and a gradual renewal of sorts for Birkin – a sense of restoration, both creatively and emotionally.

Standing up there on the platform before a great work of art, feeling kinship with its creator, cozily knowing that I was a sort of impresario conjuring and teasing back his work after four hundred years of darkness. But that wasn’t all of it. There was this weather, this landscape, thick woods, roadsides deep in grass and wild flowers. And to south and north of the Vale, low hills, frontiers of a mysterious country. (p.83)

Above all, this is a beautifully written novel imbued with a strong sense of longing, a nostalgia for an idyllic world. (Birkin is narrating his story from a point of distance, looking back nearly 60 years to the summer in question.) It also perfectly captures the ephemeral nature of time – the idea that our lives can turn on the tiniest of moments, the most fleeting of chances to be grasped before they are lost forever.

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. (p.104)

A sublime, deeply affecting book about love, loss and the restorative power of art – one I would wholeheartedly recommend if you haven’t read it already. (For more detailed insights, do take a look at these excellent posts by Max and Caroline. The wonderful Backlisted team also covered the book on one of their podcasts, which you can find here.)

My copy of A Month in the Country is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

30 thoughts on “A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr (1980)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Wonderful isn’t it? Sorry, I knew I’d seen another post about it recently but couldn’t remember where. Of course, it was your novella-a-day project in May. I’ll add a link to your piece here:

      https://madamebibilophilerecommends.wordpress.com/2019/05/04/novella-a-day-in-may-2019-4/

      It’s actually a second reading for me – I first read it a couple of years ago but couldn’t quite find the right words for it at the time. Not that I’ve been able to find them now either. It’s hard to capture the gorgeousness of this book in a review, that idyllic, pastoral quality which adds so much to the mood…

      Reply
      1. madamebibilophile

        Thank you for the link Jacqui :-) It is a really hard book to review isn’t it? As you say, a lot of it is about the atmosphere and that builds slowly. Also being so short, you don’t want to end up summarising the whole thing! I think you really captured why its such a wonderful read.

        Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    I have not read this. It sounds like it is worth the read. War veterans trying to cope with the aftermath of their experiences is a very old literary theme. It is tragic tend that keeps repeating itself in history.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The book captures the emotional fallout so well, that sense of turmoil breaking through every now and again – as if it’s always there, bubbling away under the surface.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. It’s Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh, I believe, with Natasha Richardson as Alice Keach. It pops up on the TV every now and again, but I’m not sure I could risk a viewing. My impressions of the novella are far too vivid for that!

      Reply
  2. heavenali

    I have had this tbr for ages, not such a nice edition though. I don’t know why I haven’t read it before but I’m really looking forward to it. Great review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m willing to bet you’re going to love it! There’s something very special about this book, a mood or feeling that’s proving hard to put into words…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, truly wonderful. So much depth of feeling for such a slim little book. As for Carr’s other fiction, I’ve heard very good things about the football one – How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup. I quite fancy reading that one – it sounds rather nostalgic in the best possible sense.

      Reply
  3. Guy Savage

    Yes, I’ll join in here with the chorus and agree it’s wonderful. I recently finished A Season in Sinji from the same author. It’s completely different in tone.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’ve heard that all of his books are very different from one another – a little like Sylvia Townsend Warner in that respect. I hope you get a chance to write about Sinji – it would be interesting to her a little more about it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A Twitter friend was just saying earlier that she usually re-reads it every summer, in the same way that others revisit Ethan Frome every winter.

      Reply
  4. Arti

    I’ve yet to read this but your review has just prompted me to move it up my TBR piles. Have you seen the movie adaptation with Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, I haven’t. To tell you the truth, I’m rather reluctant to watch it, especially as certain impressions of the story are already fixed in my mind. It’s always a risk with a much-loved book, whether the film will convey the subtlety and nuance of the text…

      Reply
  5. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  6. Radz Pandit

    I have been meaning to read this book for a while, largely because it has been rated highly in the blogging world, so your review is a timely reminder. It helps that it is a novella too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think there’s every chance you’ll love this. The characters are so well drawn, the atmosphere is stunning — almost dreamlike at times — and the writing sublime. It really is a very special little book.

      Reply
  7. Liz

    I have really enjoyed your review, Jacqui, and have been reading it alongside Melissa’s – you both make a great case for what I already knew to be a good book. As I have just said on her blog, you have spurred me on to get it read from my shelf this summer. 😀

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! It really is the most sublime novella, just perfect for a lazy afternoon in the sun. Looking back on it now, I am struck by how much emotion Carr managed to pack into such a slim little book; the narrative is rather affecting, especially towards the end.

      Reply

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