‘A Month in the Country’ by J. L. Carr (1980) – 135 pages
‘A Month in the Country’ by J. L. Carr is a novella that has been highly praised by a lot of people. Two fine reviews for it can be found at Pechorin’s Journal and at KevinFromCanada. It was time for me to find out what all this acclaim is about. As it turned out ‘A Month in the Country’ proved worthy of all the applause it has received and then some. It is one great little novella.
Did you ever have a time in your youth when the sun seemed to shine brighter? A time when the world seemed more alive, and the people in it seemed to make a more vivid impression?
It is 1920, and twenty-five year old Tom Birkin has just made it through World War I. As a soldier he has been through the hell that was the battle of Passchendaele coming out with a case of shell shock and a facial tic and stutter, but he is alive.
Tom came home to London and found that his wife has at least temporarily run off with another man. He gets a commission from a village church in Oxgodby in northern England to uncover a mural from the Middle Ages thought to be buried under many coats of whitewash on the church walls. He will stay in a little room inside the church attached to the furnace room. The job will take all summer.
During that summer Tom meets Charles Moon, another ex-soldier who has a special project of his own. There are also the testy reverend of the church and his lovely wife and the Ellerback family and assorted other characters.
Tom has been through a lot with the war and with his wife and everything, and during these few months in Oxgodby he engages again with life relearning the small pleasures of being a civilian.
“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.”
J. L. Carr presents this story with a kindly humorous attitude that makes it a pleasure to read. The narrator is Tom Birkin as an older man telling this story from his younger days. He views his younger self and the other characters with a generous winking detachment.
‘A Month in the Country’ is a very traditional novel told in straightforward fashion that takes us back to life as it was lived almost a century ago. I realize that some of the appeal of this novel is nostalgic, but it is so well done it is near irresistible.
If I had not already created my list of the best novellas, ‘A Month in the Country’ would certainly be on that list.