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.