Title: A Month in the Country
Author: J.L. Carr
Source: Personal library
Challenges: Read 'n' Review Challenge
First Sentence: "When the train stopped I stumbled out, nudging and kicking the kitbag before me."
Summary (From back of book):
In J.L. Carr's deeply charged poetic novel, Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War and a broken marriage, arrives in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby to restore a recently discovered medieval mural in the local church. Living in the bell tower, surrounded by the resplendent countryside of high summer, and laboring each day to uncover an anonymous painter's extraordinary depiction of the apocalypse, Birkin finds that he himself has been restored to a new, and hopeful, attachment to life. But summer ends, and with the work done, Birkin must leave. Now, long after, as he reflects on the passage of time and the power of art, he finds in his memories some consolation for all that has been lost.
My Two Cents:
This was such a nice, simple little book that I just couldn't put it down. I think I finished it in just over an hour's time.
I had never heard of J.L. Carr prior to this round of the Spotlight Series tour on the New York Review Books classics, and was surprised to find that this novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. After reading it, I can see why it was given that distinction.
Carr's writing is straightforward and highly readable, but there's a sense of wistfulness that pervades the prose. His narrator, Tom Birkin, is telling the story from many years on (Carr says he wrote this novel in the tradition of Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree), and there's definitely a sense that we may not be getting the full story because the narrator's fond memories are glossing things over. That Birkin is an unreliable narrator, however, doesn't take away from this book any. In fact, I think it enhances the reading.
While Carr was able to write some great characters, especially in Moon and Kathy Ellerbeck, but it's the town that really shines as the star of this book. As I was reading this, I could picture exactly the idyllic little town in the English countryside. Oxgodby could have been any one of dozens of little English towns (Places such as Castle Combe came to my mind as coming from my personal travels), and its inhabitants could have been any small-town Englishmen. I felt myself getting nostalgic for the things I had seen and the places I had visited, much like Tom Birkin was nostalgic for the Oxgodby he knew.
I also liked the inclusion of Birkin's uncovering of the medieval mural in the plot. The churchgoing townspeople had this gorgeous, albeit somewhat disturbing, example of the medieval depiction of the end of the world painted right above their heads the whole time, and no one knew it. They were so busy focusing on their own lives (here on Earth) that they didn't look up (toward Heaven) and see what was right in front of their faces. It was a nice metaphor, I thought.
I would recommend this book to anyone who likes novels about the English countryside, art or who just wants a quick read.
Note: I purchased a copy of this book for the Spotlight Series tour of the NYRB Classics.
New York Review Books Classics publishes unique and interesting classics from many eras and parts of the world. Some you may have heard of, others you'll discover for the first time! Often they are translated from other languages and include such greats as such as Euripides, Dante, Balzac, and Chekhov. NYRB Classics include not just fiction titles but also non-fiction such as memoirs, cookbooks, travel and literary criticism.
Just a sample of their authors: Daphne DuMaurier, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christina Stead, Mavis Gallant, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.
Considered the wide range of eras, genres and nationalities you are sure to find something to suit your tastes.