A Month in the Country
by J.L. Carr
"The marvelous thing was coming into this haven of calm water and, for a season, not having to worry my head with anything but uncovering their wall-painting for them. And, afterwards, perhaps I could make a new start, forget what the War and the rows with Vinny had done to me and begin where I’d left off." (p 20)
The ages of history are not sharply defined. The middle ages did not end in a particular year with the populace of Europe awaking to the Renaissance the next, and so on with subsequent ages.
This thought came to mind as I read this evocative, adagio-like story. The world of the small country village of Oxgodby in the summer of 1920, where Tom Birkin is called up to a church to restore a medieval wall painting, is one that time seems to have passed by. Existing in a time that is worlds away from the civilization of urban life, it was a bit like being in a different era, perhaps one more romantic than medieval.
The task he undertakes was one deeded in the will of an eccentric and recently-deceased gentrywoman, Miss Hebron. The painting is barely visible, covered by seemingly indelible layers of grime, lime-wash, plaster, and stove smoke - just as the village is sheltered from the modern world and Birkin’s quarters are more rustic yet just as his heart is neglected. He arrives in Oxgodby with searing memories of World War I, a facial twitch from exposure to gas at the Battle of Passchendeale, and an ego shattered by a flighty, vindictive wife who remains in London with a lover.
The story develops at a deliberate pace and Birkin slowly begins to recover, meets villagers, completes his task. There is the task itself, dinners with the Ellerbecks, Birkin's own thoughtful meditations and dreams that slowly force the pain of the war to dissipate into the more distant past, if not to disappear. The impressive aspect to the novella is its length, which suits the subject well, and the levels of meaning - only one of which is the way memory and time mesh inside and outside of young Tom Birkin.
"We can ask and ask but we can't have again what once seemed ours forever -- the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on the belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They've gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass." (p 135)
A Month in the Country is short enough that the reader can easily take in the whole tale or stop to delve into its layers, and there behold: evocations of beauty, the subtle portrait of Birkin’s shell shock, and the sense of loss as Birkin looks across decades at a time when he was happy. It was a time that he was sheltered and surfeited with the power of a world from another age.
A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr. New York Review Books, 2000 (1980)