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:
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.