J L Carr – A Month in the Country

 

Last week we wrote about two elderly Swedish men, working together, trying to do a job in between drinks and reminiscences of life.

This week we have another novella with two men working side by side on projects for which they are well qualified. The difference is these two men are young, in their twenties, and both suffering trauma following their involvement in World War 1.

Tom Birkin goes to the village of Oxgodby in Yorkshire, commissioned to expose, with all his skill, an ancient mural on the internal wall of the village church. He is not in good shape and he has a facial tic which,

I’d caught at Passchaendaele and wasn’t the only one either. The medics said it might work off given time.

And Moon, who becomes something of a friend, is also damaged by war. He works in the churchyard, digging for the grave of the benefactor’s relative, but he has a secret agenda.

Slowly the glorious summer and the quiet of Oxgodby brings some peace to Tom

During my weeks there I had only two bad nights. Once when I dreamed the tower was crumpling and, once, sliding forward into machine-gun fire and no pit to creep into, slithering on through mud to mutilating death. And then my screams too joined with the night creatures.

This novel has a dreamlike quality. Day after day the sun shines, Tom makes friends with the station master Mr Ellerbeck, with the encouragement of  fourteen-year old  Kathy Ellerbeck, who proves to be Tom’s mentor. She is a remarkable character and a measure of the lack of snobbery or stereotyping in this story.

Given that the narrator is writing about his youth in 1920 from the perspective of 1978 there is something elegiac about this tale. Not just for Tom’s lost youth, but for a lost time that he almost knew was going as he experienced it. He is invited to share in the Village’s Harvest picnic

…beyond a bend I heard the clipclop of hooves: even in that horse age, it was a marvellously exciting sound.

And then they came, the morning sun gleaming on their chestnut and black backs, glinting from martingales medalled like generals. Their mains were plaited with patriotic ribbons, their harness glowed – those great magical creatures soon to disappear from highways and turning furrow. Did I know it even then?

The story of a charmed summer, the story of friendship, the story of a bygone way of life, the story of love not acted upon, the story of a magical work of art. In the compass of 110 pages J L Carr has produced a deeply moving account of a life-changing experience.

A glorious tale; not to be missed.

9 thoughts on “J L Carr – A Month in the Country

  1. Great review. I remember being charmed by that book when I read it decades ago. And would you just look at that lovely cover! It’s a British Rail poster from 1953. The Yorkshire Dales by Frank Sherwin.

  2. Loved the review, particularly as this one has been on my TBR list for years; for some reason, I just won’t take an afternoon and read it! I think on one level, I’ve been postponing what I know (and your review confirms) will be a dreamy, elegaic pleasure. I, too, love the cover of your edition, which really suits the novel; far more IMO than the cover of the NYRB edition that I have.

  3. A beautiful review of a truly wonderful book. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, back in the day. (I can’t even recall the name of the book that pipped it to the post, but it must have been very good!) Have you seen the film with Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh?

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