The Perfect Book for Summer
Dorian Stuber on J.L. Carr's wonderful novel about a WWI veteran who finds peace while restoring a fresco in the English countryside
It’s that time of year when summer reading is on the mind. Perhaps you’re even making a list of titles to take with you on vacation or to read pool-side (or dock-side or meadow-side). Well, any such list that doesn’t include J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (first published in 1980 and brought to readers today by NYRB) is doing it wrong. Carr’s brief novel is 130 pages of pure literary succulence. But don’t take our word for it. We asked our friend Dorian Stuber, a wonderful book critic and enthusiast, to explain why.
The Perfect Book for Summer
By Dorian Stuber
J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, a book that never puts a foot wrong, begins with stumbling. Tom Birkin, less than two years removed from the trauma of the Western Front, and recently separated from his wife, arrives in a peaceful Yorkshire village in the summer of 1920. Thanks to the last wishes of an eccentric spinster, he’s been hired by the local priest to restore a Medieval fresco. Birkin is adroit at his work, nimble on the scaffold he practically lives on, but that first evening he’s all clumsiness: swaying in the aisle, bumping into passengers, and dropping his kitbag as the train shudders to a halt. His fellow travelers look on, aggrieved. No one comes to meet him. It’s raining buckets. Eventually, he slops to the Church, sets up his sleeping bag and Primus stove, and takes the measure of the job as best he can in the gloom.
An inauspicious beginning. But the next morning, he wakes to a beautiful day. From then on, for weeks and weeks, the weather is fine. Birkin—and the novel—begins to thaw. He no longer wakes up screaming. He sets aside his dismay at his marriage problems. He throws himself into his work, uncovering an unexpectedly impressive Judgment scene fresco executed in brilliant colors and skillful lines.
And he lets people into his life. Much of the novel’s pleasure comes from its skillfully handled cast of characters. First is Moon, an archaeologist hired through the same bequest as Birkin—in his case to find the missing grave of the testator’s ancestor. Moon is another traumatized vet—he sleeps in a hole he’s dug to remind him of the trenches—though his attitude to life is much more easygoing than Birkin’s. There’s Kathy Ellerbeck, the fourteen-year-old daughter of the local station master and lay Wesleyan preacher, who blithely regales Birkin with tales of local life and whose family takes the visitor in, feeding him Sunday dinners and extracting as recompense only a promise that he help with the Sunday school and, in a memorable scene that is funny without being cruel, preach at an even smaller nearby village. Less happily, there’s the Reverend Keach, the blustering, sanctimonious priest who has hired Birkin only because a donation to the church is contingent on it, the kind of person who, having agreed to something, begins “to grub up a few restrictive clauses to recover face” (the novel is full of little apercus like this). And finally, there’s Alice Keach, the Reverend’s unaccountably lovely wife, with whom Birkin falls in love—a dreamy, shy love that Alice seems to reciprocate but that neither acts upon.
The writer Penelope Fitzgerald noted that Carr “has the magic touch to re-enter the imagined past.” Coming from the author of four extraordinary historical novels, this is high praise. A Month in the Country insists on the foreignness of the past and its inhabitants. “They weren’t like us,” says Moon. “Their minds worked differently.” Yet the novel is also fascinated by continuity: seasons, agricultural life, religious rites. In each of these experiences, time passes without seeming to. Out of this backdrop, certain scenes arise with startling clarity: the resigned and brave death of a schoolgirl from consumption; an outing through the fields to celebrate the last day of Sunday school; Birkin’s dream-like visit to the labyrinthine rectory in search of Alice. These events are made into a whole by the narrative voice, in which Birkin, now a man in his 70s, looks back on his youthful self at the tail end of “the plow-horse and candle-to-bed age,” chagrined at missed opportunities but aware too of the pleasure that comes from being satisfied with what was. Bodies and souls, he’s learned, need restoring as much as the image underneath the whitewashed façade above the chancel.
The New York Review of Books edition comes with an illuminating but decidedly eccentric introduction by noted biographer Michael Holyroyd. (Carr, it seems, was as wayward and mischievous as his prose.) Read that after you finish the book. But read this novel you must—at least if you want a book at once gentle and pointed, funny and heartbreaking. Like its lithe description of the narrator’s clumsy arrival, Carr’s prose transfigures Birkin’s regret into poignant, bittersweet memory.
A Month in the Country can be read in a day but its rewards are best savored over a lifetime.
Dorian Stuber teaches English at Hendrix College and blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.blog.
Thanks for this, Dorian.