A Month in the Country – J L Carr
There are many different motives for reading a book – a desire for pure entertainment, to educate, to discover more, intellectual stimulus – but sometimes you come across a book that is just wonderful and gives you a zest for life. One such is Carr’s novella, A Month in the Country, set in 1920 and published in 1980.
At one level it is a paean to the lost English countryside and the crafts that sustained the rural economy until the dark clouds of the First World War changed everything irrevocably. Carr has an acute sense of the minutiae that make up the countryside and his descriptions take an almost elegiac form; “the sound of the bees foraging from flower to flower seemed to deepen the stillness.” And in a longer passage; “Day after day, mist rose from the meadow as the sky lightened and hedges, barns and woods took shape until, at last, the long curving back of the hills lifted away from the Plain. It was a sort of stage magic… I had a feeling of immense content and, if I thought at
all, it was that I’d like this to go on and on…”
But on another level, it is a bitter sweet tale. The protagonist and narrator, Tom Birkin, is on his uppers, has suffered a painful break-up in his marriage and has been mentally scarred by (and has a facial tick from) his war-time experiences. He has arrived at the village of Oxgodby to restore a medieval mural hidden behind a whitewashed in the church. The vicar thinks it is a waste of time and money but Birkin soon realises that he is uncovering a masterpiece. This rare opportunity for Birkin to practise his ancient craft allows him to find some solace, some comfort.
Birkin strikes up a friendship with Moon, another former soldier scarred by his wartime experiences, who is employed to find the bones of his patron’s ancestor. They both realise that they are experiencing a moment of catharsis and eke out their work to extend their stay.
And then just for good measure Birkin meets a woman, Alice Keach, the wife of the vicar. She is considerably younger than her rather crabby husband and beautiful to boot. Carr indicates that her marriage is not a satisfying one and there is a frisson of romantic attachment between the former soldier and her. But it is a chaste relationship, offering promise rather than fruition. Alice is portrayed rather like a paragon of beauty locked in some painting, someone to be admired, venerated but not touched.
And for me this is the essence of this rather wonderful book – the realisation that even the most imperfect and damaged life can contain moments of happiness and perfection. These may be fleeting and impermanent and need to be enjoyed when they occur. Or as Carr more memorably puts it, “If I had stayed there, would I have always 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.”
Carpe diem is a motto that has a lot going for it, I have always thought.
If you are looking for a tender, elegant, beautifully written novella that evokes the beauty of the English countryside and the impermanence of happiness, you will not be disappointed with this book.