A Month in the Country – J.L. Carr

There is something rather wonderful in the fact that Granny Savidge is still influencing my reading almost a year, in fact it is a year tomorrow, since she died. As someone who I talked about books at least three times a week there is a void left now yet through having inherited some of her books my thought was that some of her favourites, as they were the only books she would keep unless a random gift like the Barbara Cartland I once bought her as a joke, would become my future reads and maybe some of my favourites. Well luck struck first time with J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, which I tried to read when she was ill (on her recommendation) yet just couldn’t yet have been much, much more successful this time around.

9780141182308

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1980 (2000 edition), fiction, 112 pages, inherited from Gran

In A Month in the Country Tom Birkin reflects several decades later on the summer of 1920 when he ended up in the village of Oxgodby for a single month. Here on a mission left by recently deceased spinster Miss Hebron he is being paid, begrudgingly by the Reverend Keach who is only allowing it as Hebron left the church money if he did, to uncover a possible medieval wall painting inside the church. Birkin reflects upon that summer, the place he was in mentally in his life at the time and thinks about the place he was in physically and those who peopled it.

Ostensibly it sounds like there isn’t really much to this novella and in some ways you would be right, plot wise there are no twists and turns. Yet somehow Carr creates a novel where very little happens and yet everything happens too. We learn through reflections he had that month which he reflects upon (bear with me) of his failing marriage, yet we also get hints of what happened after that summer. We also get glimpses of what he had to face during the war which has left him with shellshock and a nervous twitch. We learn of the friends he makes; Charles Moon who also fought in the war and is on another of Miss Hebron’s missions, Alice Keach the younger wife of the Reverend who feels like she isn’t accepted, Kathy Ellerbeck a young girl who befriends Birkin and whose family are the first to welcome him properly into the area.

Through all these friendships Carr creates very condensed additional stories. With the Ellerbeck’s he looks at how the families and people in the countryside were as affected by the war as those in the cities, only in a different way, and also looks at class. With Moon, whose storyline is sharply bittersweet, we get another side of the war and also another side to social mores of the time. Through Alice Keach we look at marriage, a mirror of sorts to Birkin’s to an extent, and indeed lust verses love and how love and marriage connect or don’t.

See it is brimming and what makes this all the more masterful is that fact that Carr does this all so succinctly. The story is in itself only 88 pages and yet there is all of this life within it. The prose is magical, not something I say often yet is so true in this instance. Within a line he conjures a character completey, a situation is a mere paragraph or so. Sometimes within very few lines he can capture the things we ponder about life and just put them plainly and simply, in terms we wish we could, it is just marvellous.

I never exchanged a word with the Colonel. He has no significance at all in what happened during my stay in Oxgodby. As far as I’m concerned he might just as well have gone round the corner and died. But that goes for most of us, doesn’t it? We look blankly at each other. Here I am, here you are. What are we doing here? What do you suppose it’s all about? Let’s dream on. Yes, that’s my Dad and Mum over there on the piano top. My eldest boy is on the mantelpiece. That cushion cover was embroidered by my cousin Sarah only a month before she passed on. I go to work at eight and come home at five-thirty. When I retire they’ll give me a clock – with my name engraved on the back. Now you know all about me. Go away; I’ve forgotten you already.

One of my favourite things in fiction is looking at difference and also the relationship between the outsider and the insider. Interestingly it is books with a rural setting where this can be used to its full potential. In villages things are rarely missed or go unnoticed, in cities you can lose yourself, others or things. With A Month in the Country Carr adds even more levels to this. The metaphor of the outsider is tripled as not only is Birkin an outsider to Oxgodby, he is an outsider to some of the religious views of the villagers and in many ways in his present state an outsider to life. This is doubly felt as he uncovers the wall painting, seemingly learning about the villagers (possibly uncovering their secrets) and himself at the same time, and of course there is the image that the walls depict, but I won’t spoil that for you.

The other things that I loved so much about the book are firstly how awash it is in the sense of nostalgia and secondly the way the atmosphere and place are so well depicted and come to life. I left the book feeling as if I had been wandering away and hour or two reflecting on that summer, as I had walked it’s streets, seen Miss Hebron’s spooky old house, witnessed a sermon in the church, has dinner with the Ellerbeck’s and tea with Charles Moon when these moments are just a sentence here and there within.

If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around the corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.

I think it is safe to say, and very apparent, that I adored A Month in the Country. I think it is easily one of the best things that I have read in years and a book that will not only last with me for years to come but also be read by me again and again for years to come. It is the kind of rare book that makes you look at your life and tells you not to waste it, not to have regrets and to do all the things you want to do, not what people want you to. If you haven’t read it, which is possibly unlikely, then you must. I can see why so many authors have it as a firm favourite, it is a perfect piece of prose. A little gem of a novella.

Inscribed by Gran

Inscribed by Gran

My only real regret with the novel is that I can’t talk to Gran about it. As soon as I had finished it I felt the age old urge to phone her and rave about it all (yes, a year down the line this still happens when I read a book I really love) and discuss it further. However, not to get too nostalgic and melancholic, I just sat and thanked her for a moment for having led me to it, plus I have all of you to discuss it with now don’t I?

13 Comments

Filed under Books of 2014, J.L. Carr, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

13 responses to “A Month in the Country – J.L. Carr

  1. Carol S

    Your review and pleasure make me tearful, a gem of a book. I can feel its summeriness too as I remember it.

  2. I loved this book too. I read the Folio edition, and the illustrations were beautiful. You have made me want to go back and read it again.

  3. jon morgan

    Absolutely spot on about this gem of a book. His other rather sparse output is no less wonderfully human/ humane. His biography ‘The Last Englishman’ is also superb and gives a real insight into the man and his work. His son still runs quince tree press and bothers to reply personally to fan mail and orders. A library without JL Carr is wholly incomplete. NB the film is superb as well.

  4. A great connection, a blessing to have this very special feeling through books with your Gran. The passage quoted is excellent.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    What a lovely review Simon – it’s a fabulous book which I only read recently myself, and how wonderful to come to it via your Gran. I will raise a cup of tea in yours and her honour tomorrow.

  6. Enjoyed this write up today. Seems hard to believe it has been a year already since your gran died. We still miss her too even though we never met her. It is nice you have such wonderful memories of her.

  7. Great review. I’ve heard very good things about this book, but it had dropped off my radar for some reason. I’ll have to add to the list. I like the way you’ve described the layered relationship between the outsider and insiders.

  8. David

    It’s a wonderful little book isn’t it, utterly faultless and gemlike. I read it about 18 years ago now when we were asked to read it at university. I think I was the only one in the class to bother, but felt all the richer for it. I really must reread it soon. The film, with Colin Firth and Kenneth Brannagh, is great too.
    I did try Carr’s first novel (A Day in Summer) last year and found it to be rather dated, but that hasn’t put me off wanting to read all his others (especially as Carr’s Quince Tree editions are so beautiful).

  9. I loved this book – and that beautiful cover, which mine also has. It feels so much older than the 1980s;there’s a quality to the writing which feels 1930s to me. My book group is reading A Day in Summer later in the year, so I’ll be interested to see what I think of it… I quite like dated books, so maybe I’ll be ok!

  10. Laura Caldwell

    I am another reader who loved this book. I tried watching the movie, which seemed to be very like the book, but found myself stopping it half way through it. I think that I just wanted to leave the book in my mind. I must get a copy of this book, I read a library copy a couple of years ago.

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  12. I’m almost certain that I have this downstairs in my TBR bookcase. Maybe this summer….. Enjoyed your review. It’s a wonderful tribute to your grandmother and I think it’s wonderful that you still want to share books with her.

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