A Month in the Country by J L Carr

Yorkshire-dales

This beautifully written novel, set in the depths of the Yorkshire countryside in the summer of 1920, was the perfect follow up to Cider with Rosie. Told from the perspective of a now elderly man, it captures the fleeting but unforgettable month he spent in the village of Oxgodby as a lonely, defeated and shell-shocked survivor of the trenches, hired to uncover a medieval wall mural in the local church. His absorption in his task, alongside his growing relationship with the residents of this sleepy backwater, will gradually heal him of the horrors of war, and give him the freedom to move on with his life.

Thanks to an eccentric spinster’s stipulation that the local church would only receive a handsome sum of money from her will if they hired someone to uncover the long-lost medieval mural hidden inside its unprepossessing exterior, Tom Birkin is given a much needed break from his London life. His wife has left him, and he is still suffering from the embarrassing facial twitch he developed during his time in the trenches. His sleep is disturbed by nightmares of bombing and gunfire, and he is struggling to find his purpose, feeling cast adrift in his life. Arriving in Oxgodby, he is instantly befriended by the station master and his daughter, but the young vicar in charge of the purse strings is not so welcoming, and is clearly displeased at having him there. Tom is thrilled, however, with the opportunity to live simply for the summer; he has been given the bare boards of the church’s bell tower to sleep on, from which he is afforded a lovely view of the surrounding countryside, as well as the archeological dig below that is also part of the will’s terms. Running the dig is the jovial Moon, a fellow trench survivor, with whom Birkin will strike up a friendship rooted in a mutual understanding of the horrors they have survived. Within a couple of days of arriving, Birkin finds himself already assimilated into the local community, and all this before he has even really begun to unearth the hidden treasure beneath the church’s white painted walls.

Birkin’s absorption in the work of uncovering this mural is rewarded by the exquisitely beautiful painting he discovers; the work of a master, this is a discovery of national significance that Birkin is thrilled to have had the opportunity to find. His excitement builds day by day, as does his affection for Oxgodby and its people. One person in particular captures his heart; the intelligent, serene and gorgeous Alice Keach, unlikely young wife of the unpleasant Vicar, who, like Birkin, seems trapped in a life that should not be hers. Birkin is mesmerised by her, but afraid to speak of his feelings. As the heat of the summer builds, the true scale of the mural is revealed, and Birkin’s passion quivers on the edge of revelation, the story climbs to its magnificently apt, poignant conclusion. Birkin’s shattered spirit is slowly rebuilt through both marvelling at the work of a craftsman dead for some 600 years, and the warmth and affection of the villagers living in this perfect distillation of England. Brief but rich in emotion, poignancy and glorious descriptions of a countryside filled with the heady scent of a long-gone summer, this is perfection. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

25 comments

  1. not sure if my previous email influenced your decision to read and write about A Month In the Country, but your review is super.

    royston

    1. I had already started as coincidentally it was next on my reading pile, but you did make me feel that I had made the right decision! Thank you – I’m glad you enjoyed the review!

  2. I felt the same way about this when I read it – such a beautifully evocative book, and in so few pages. Lovely review!

  3. Rachel, thank you so much for this wonderful review. I read this about 25 years ago and your words have shown me that a reread is in order, especially since I have been in a bit of a reading slump. Lucky me! I have a copy on my personal favorites bookcase.

  4. I read this years ago after watching film of it with very young Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh as Birkin and Moon. It’s a beautiful film and became a book I loved.

  5. Oh, you make me want to drop everything and read. Right now. Sadly, I have to work for a living which is a problem as it conflicts with reading. Happy summer.

  6. Oh how my sister & I loved that film. I don’t think I’d ever realised it was originally a book.
    Happy near the end of year Rachel x

  7. Please do find the film – it is that rare thing – an adaptation that captures everything that matters in the book. This novel reminded me of Helen Humphries novels, The Lost Garden and Coventry. They are about WW2, but they also capture the experience of ordinary people whose worlds are transformed by war. The writing is beautiful, too.

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