A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr

Purchased from Chapters.ca

I’ll come straight to the point: A Month in the Country is one of those almost-perfect, slim novels that are an absolute delight to a reader searching for an ideal evening’s entertainment. First published by a minor academic press in 1980, it attracted significant word-of-mouth attention, then some serious reviews, leading eventually to a place on that year’s Booker Prize shortlist. It has been reprinted numerous times since — a sign of its appeal was that it was filmed in 1987 with a screenplay by Simon Gray and a cast including Colin Frith, Kenneth Branagh and Natasha Richardson. The London Review of Books critique concluded with a summary that I cannot improve on: “Slight but beautifully done, this book has a quality of its own that will not be easily forgotten.” For a more recent appraisal, you can also check out the Mookse and the Gripes — it made Trevor’s Best of 2009 list. That means my endorsement completes the trifecta.

Tom Birkin is an art restorer who arrives in the North Riding town of Oxgodby with a mission — and a contract. A local Worthy has left the church 1,000 pounds for its Fabric Fund, but on condition that first 25 guineas will be invested in investigating the restoration of a mural in the chancel arch. The minister doesn’t care that much about the mural; he does care about the Fabric Fund. Tom arrives, alone, in the rural church:

Penguin cover


The scaffolding, as I’d been told by letter, was rigged up, filling the chancel’s arch. There even was a ladder roped to it and this I immediately climbed. Much can be said against the Revd. J.G. Keach. Alas, yes. But when he stands at the Judgement Seat, this also must be said in extenuation — he was businesslike, Lord. And, in Englishmen, this is a rare virtue. We could have done with a few depot supply-majors like him in France. He had said that the scaffold would be ready and it was. He had said that, if I arrived on the quarter-past seven train, he would meet me in the church at seven-thirty. And he did.

And that was how I first saw him, his precise business-like letters made flesh, standing in the doorway before me, seeing by wet footprints that I had come. Like a tracker-dog, he looked along their trail to the foot of the ladder and then up it.

“Good evening, Mr. Birkin,” he said and I climbed down. He was four or five years older than me, maybe thirty, a tall but not a strong-looking man, neatly turned out, pale-eyed, a cold, cooped-up look about him and, long after he must have become used to my face-twitch, he still talked to someone behind my left shoulder.

I quote that at some length because it is an excellent — but also typical — example of both the economy and depth of Carr’s style. The reader not only learns something about the church and mural, but also gets a quick character and physical assessment of the not-very-likable Revd. Keach. And we discover Tom was in the trenches and foxholes of France and carries a face-twitch resulting from the experience. Not long after, a similar offhand reference informs us that his wife left him shortly after he returned from the war.

Tom sets up a bed-sit for himself in the belfry of the church. That has many advantages — it is close to his worksite, it fits his tight economic circumstances and it provides the privacy that allows him to contemplate both his demons and his opportunities. The mural is not just a job, it is a chance finally to focus on what the future might hold:

Bringing back that long-dead man’s apocalyptic picture into daylight obsessed me. That great pyramid of folk split by the arch! Because it wasn’t long before I’d made a foray up, down and across it and had a fair idea of the whole — the judge and his bailiff; below them, the three Lords of Luke 16, clad first in finery, then only in furnace glare, and, finally, the multitudes tripping smugly right to Paradise or being tossed screaming over the left-hand fiery brim.

Even when I wasn’t on the job I found myself dwelling on that immense spread of color. Particularly during those first two or three weeks when only Moon interrupted me. But then, inevitably, as happens to most of us, first thru Saturday umpiring [Tom has been drafted to serve in the weekly local cricket match], later Sunday chapel, I was drawn into the changing picture of Oxgodby itself. But, oddly, what happened outside was like a dream. It was inside the still church, before its reappearing picture, that was real. I drifted across the rest. As I have said — like a dream. For a time.

Moon? It turns out there is a second condition in the Fabric Fund bequest — a command to search for the grave of an ancestor of the Worthy whom she believes was buried outside the church graveyard because of religious misbehavior. Moon is an archaeologist far more interested in discovering the ruins of an ancient site, but he’ll turn his mind to the grave search eventually. He is also a veteran of the Great War and has set himself up in a tent on his site, not unlike Tom in his belfry. The two discover they are on similar personal missions that extend beyond their contracts.

“For a time.”? The dream starts to turn to reality when Alice Keach, the young wife of the reverend, visits the chancel:

Frankly, if Keach was as awful as he seemed, living with him didn’t bear thinking about. But mercifully, it wasn’t Baghdad, so he couldn’t drape her in a yashmak and other men could cast an admiring eye on his doe-eyed bride. And, as we sauntered back down the road, first smelling, then seeing the swathes of the hay lying in the dusk, I thought that just looking at Alice Keach was wonder enough, so that I hoped that she would keep her word and call often to see how I was getting on.

I mean to say — the pride of the Uffizi walking abroad in, God help us, Oxgodby!

The mural. The effects of War. Introduction to a small community. A fellow traveller. And an infatuation. That is a large number of story lines for a book of only 135 pages in the NYRB edition that I read. For this reader, Carr developed and explored every one of them with both completeness and sensitivity. This review has more and longer quotes than usual because his prose is hypnotic — you could open this volume at random and find a quotable section (and all those I have used come from the first third, so I am not giving anything away).

There are times — like this time of year, say — when every reader wants a book that he or she can just fall into and trust the author to take you on the way. A Month in the Country is just such a volume. Despite its brevity, it has a complexity of both story and thoughtfulness that is welcome throughout the book. As I hope the quotes illustrate, the prose never falters. The word of mouth that created the reputation of the book was dead on — Carr’s novel deserves that reputation every bit as much today as it did when it was published. A magnificent novel.

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26 Responses to “A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr”

  1. Trevor Says:

    Your review helped me relive when I fell into this book — quite unexpectedly — last year. I was entranced by the cover and by the fact that it was a Booker contender I’d never really paid attention to now being published by NYRB classics. It has now moved up the ranks to become one of my favorite books, both for its content and for my experience while reading it. I need to read it again. I loved the way time felt in the novel, how the past was more real than the present — and what a fascinating forgotten past.

    Incidentally, I have only about twenty pages left in Wait Until Spring, Bandini and I’m finding it to be a similar reading experience — just one of those books that opens up and takes you away.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I did read A Month in the Country twice before writing the review — it is so special that it demands and rewards that attention.

    And I agree that the Bandini quartet (link here for those who haven’t seen my review) has some similar characteristics, although a much different tone. Both Fante and Carr, in these books at least, are authors who say “hop on the sleigh and come along for a wonderful ride.”

    And since you mentioned the cover, I’ve included the Penguin cover in the review. In many ways, it is more reflective of the tone of the book, although I certainly have no complaints with the NYRB cover.

  3. Trevor Says:

    I agree about the Penguin cover. When I was looking to purchase the book, I thought about using the Book Depository to get it, but then my NYRB collection would have missed it. In the end, my love for NYRB classics won the day, and I believe I simply purchased it from the book store. I couldn’t help but post both covers in my review, though, either.

    By the way, just finished Wait Until Spring, Bandini, a wonderful winter read since all of it takes place between around December 15 and January 10, or so. But now I’m in the mood for a warmer book, something along the lines of A Month in the Country which completely took me out of my dreary February last year and helped me feel warm and comfortable as if I were spending the summer in the British countryside (on a nice day). Anything come to mind?

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Here are a few thoughts for you, Trevor:

    1. If you liked the art part of A Month in the Country, consider Michael Frayn’s Headlong. He is best known for his plays (Copenhagen, Democracy, Noises Off) but Headlong was Booker shortlisted. It is an “art” detective story — the central character thinks he has found a lost Breughel and tries to buy it. Excellent exploration of the English character, albeit more urban than Carr. If you want to be reminded of your past life in journalism, Frayn’s Towards the End of Morning is one of the funniest books about the trade that I have ever read (and I read all that I can), a brilliant explanation of Fleet Street as it once was.
    2. I don’t know if you have read Penelope Fitzgerald, but she is one of my favorites and has a Carr-like mood to her work. Offshore (a Booker winner) is my favorite, set in a community of people who live on barges on the Thames near Battersea. A great reminder of London, which I read with my London map close at hand. The Bookshop is equally good, with a rural setting that has more reminders of the Carr. And on the media front Human Voices is a very funny portrayal of life inside the BBC during WWII.
    3. Also don’t know if you have read Alan Bennett (another author better known for his plays) — both The Uncommon Reader and The Lady in the Van have a warmth to them.

    4. If the melancholy of Carr was part of what you liked, The Remains of the Day would reward a re-read even if you have read it, I’d think. I’ve gone back to it a couple of times and it does get better every time.
    5. Enchanted April shows up on Amazon in the “people also bought” list with A Month in the Country — a little too soppy for my tastes. But if Italy would substitute for England, The Sixteen Pleasures is another “art” plot intrigue — although the joys of Florence frequently overtake the plot.
    6. And then there is Stoner, the last book Asylum reviewed before John took his break, and one of my all time U.S. favorites.

    I’d say all of the above would be one — perhaps two — sitting reads.

  5. Trevor Says:

    Very strange Kevin! I was at the bookstore, browsing, and I picked up Offshore and The Bookshop. Then I thought, hey, I wonder if Kevin has responded to my question. Well, there you have it. I’m on the trail!

    Thanks for all of these. The first time I saw Frayn’s novel was in the National Gallery in London. I haven’t seen it since, so it’s time to do some online browsing and find it. I loved Copenhagen and Democracy, so I am excited.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    We loved Frayn’s plays as well and I certainly enjoy his novels. They may not be as soul-searching as Copenhagen and Democracy but they do engage you as a reader.

    And I can’t say enough good things about Penelope Fitzgerald.

  7. Colette Jones Says:

    I like Frayn’s books too – he is a very diverse author, which I appreciate. I haven’t read Headlong yet though.

    My husband and I saw an excellent performance of Copenhagen at the Watermill a few years ago and loved it. I keep meaning to read “Celia’s Secret” – have you come across it?

    I started Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower yesterday, so reading your posts today, they seem quite coincidental, as I have not read anything by her before.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I would compare Frayn and Fitzgerald as “diverse” authors in that both do not hesitate to range from the comic to the very serious — in Frayn’s case both in drama and prose. One of the things that I like about both is their insight into Britain and things British (that may strike a more responsive chord with those of us who only visit rather than live there). That’s why Carr’s book brought them to mind.

    I do prefer Fitzgerald’s works set in Britain, but that is no put down of The Blue Flower (interesting that you are starting with her last book). From my perspective, you have some good reading to look forward to with her — I had Fitzgerald marked down for rereading before this exchange started.

  9. Mary Says:

    Thank you for reminding me of this book which I read in 1980 in the old Penguin Modern Classic edition. It’s such a moving book about loss but also reconciliation and hope. I thought the film was very good too with a touching ending.
    Another book which deals with the aftermath of the 1st WW is Adam Thorpe’s 1921. I don’t like everything he writes ( especially some of his more recent books) but I think 1921 is a marvellous evocation of Northern France and England in the years just after the !st WW.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks Mary — I have not heard of 1921. And I haven’t been able to find a copy of the film of A Month in the Country — may have to do some searching for a used copy.

  11. Trevor Says:

    I’ve been looking for a copy of the film y
    too. From the clips I’ve been able to find it looks like it has the right tone. If I have any luck, I will let you know.

  12. john h Says:

    I read “A Month In The Country” earlier this year and enjoyed it a lot. I can see your comparison to Penelope Fitzgerald as her novels tended to be smallish. I loved “The Blue Flower” by her. Some of her other ones were quite good as well.

    As far as “Stoner” goes, a lot of people seem to like that book. I read it so long ago that I probably can’t say anything intelligible about it but I remember liking it. Williams also had a book called “Augustus” that won a major literature prize back in the 70s. It covers some of the same territory covered by Robert Graves in “I, Claudius” and was quite good.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Williams is one of my favorite authors and I now Augustus well — it is an epistolatory novel, so not to everyone’s tastes, but I certainly liked it. And as a Westerner Butcher’s Crossing is a classic of the genre.

  14. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’d missed Trevor’s review of this, your comparison with The Remains of the Day is an interesting one (a book spoiled for me, very unusually, by a good film – the film has stayed in my memory too clearly to let me read the book unfettered again).

    I’ll look out for this one Kevin, and have a read of Trevor’s thoughts too, it sounds right up my alley.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Good point about The Remains of the Day — some of these quiet, introspective novels can be very effectively turned into good film. As I tried to indicate in my review, this is one of those books that is perfect for an occasion when you want a literary version of “comfort food”.

  16. kimbofo Says:

    Thought I’d dig around your archives to see if you had reviewed this one, Kevin.

    I agree it “has a complexity of both story and thoughtfulness” despite the fact that it is less than 100 pages long (in the Penguin Modern Classics edition I read). Admittedly I struggled a little to get into it, primarily I think because my head wasn’t in the right place for a deep read, but once I got lulled by the prose, I very much enjoyed it. I do think it would benefit from a second reading though…

    Have you ever seen the film? With a line-up like that it sounds almost better than the book! ;-)

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kim: I think the book does require rather focused attention — then again, once you get into the rhythm it does carry you along. I certainly remember parts of it very well.

    I haven’t seen the film because I’ve never come across it. I’d certainly like to see it.

  18. Trevor Says:

    I’d love to see it to, if anyone does find it.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I’ve discovered there is actually a website (http://www.amitc.org/ ) devoted to lobbying for a North American DVD version of the film. Given that the website was set up in 2007, I’d say they have not been successful so far.

  20. Trevor Says:

    Nice link, but it does look like it is getting nowhere. Honestly, while I’d love for them to find the pristine copy they are looking for, I hope to just see the film, in any quality, someday. If I find one, Kevin, you’ll be the first to know.

  21. leroyhunter Says:

    I haven’t seen the film version either, but I’ve heard it praised and I believe the performances from (much younger) Firth and Branagh are worthwhile.

    Carr tends to be remembered solely for this book, I was curious to see what his other stuff is like. So I bought a couple of the other novels directly from his imprint (Quince Tree Press), which was a pleasantly old-school experience involving use of the cheque book; I bought A Season in Sinji and The Harpole Report. I read the former and really enjoyed it, enough to make me think all of Carr is worth a look. It’s a hard-to-categorise book, involving World War 2, cricket, the class system, betrayal, sexual frustration, anti-authoritarianism, death, mental breakdown and aerial photography (for starters).

    Well worth a look if you enjoyed A Month in the Country.

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Many thanks for that comment — I too had taken a short look for other work from Carr and saw the generally negative reviews. Once I get through my rather large current backlog, I’ll have another look.

  23. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’d forgotten this review, so I’m grateful for Leroy’s comment too. Reading it afresh it really does sound right up my street. I’ll bump it up the TBR pile.

    Lovely economical writing.

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: It is a quick and enjoyable read — save it for some afternoon or evening when you feel contemplative and it will provide an excellent result.

  25. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Not sure why my pingback didn’t work, but I wanted to say that I’ve read this now and it was every bit as good as promised. A real delight of a book. Thanks for the recommendation.

    My thoughts on it are here: http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2011/08/01/a-month-in-the-country-by-j-l-carr/ and link to your review Kevin.

  26. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I have been looking forward to your thoughts and will comment on your blog. This is a very special book that I recommend to everyone.

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