Thursday, June 16, 2011

What Goes Unsaid...

Book Reviewed:  A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr

Once again, my library-loving friend has led me to a great book.  J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country is a short, poetic novel about, well, a month in the country.  Tom Birkin, a World War I veteran, takes a job restoring a medieval wall painting in a northern England church in 1920.  Birkin is affected both physically and spiritually by the war, and the summer he spends in Oxgodby is perhaps the closest he has come to healing his many inner wounds.  He meets a fellow veteran, Moon, who is also doing his own uncovering job: looking for a body buried hundreds of years earlier near church grounds.  Birkin also forms relationships with the minister's wife, Alice Keach, and a young girl and her family.  These friendships, as well as the countryside, act as a kind of balm for his soul, even though he must leave the place behind in the end.

It's a very internal book, and it's as much about what is unsaid as is said.  What Birkin doesn't say to others mirrors the ways us readers have to fill in holes based on what Birkin does and doesn't tell us in his first-person narration.  I once had a lit professor who explained that what made William Wordsworth interesting wasn't what he said but what he left unsaid.  Wordsworth would get close to saying something in his writing, then back away from it, almost in fear of what he might find in his words.  Birkin's narration reminded me of this idea.  There are startling and devastating sentences to be found in the midst of some lovely language here, but there's also something in Birkin that seems just beyond our reach. He talks about the war, and yet there's so much he never says about it.  I think this is the most clever device Carr uses in his novel.  This is a book where you have to read between the lines, and what you find there isn't always as cozy as you'd like it to be. 

I think A Month in the Country is a lovely little book, although I admit I wasn't as attached to Birkin as I would have preferred.  However, I will gladly add it to my list of wonderful books written with a beautiful sense of language and narrative derring-do.


  1. I should add that I loooove studying the differences between writers who do and don't leave things unsaid in their narratives. For example, Tolstoy is a writer who never leaves anything to chance; it's hard to read between the lines with Tolstoy. On the other hand, Fitzgerald's best writing, particularly his strongest short stories, have a tendency to leave their sadness in what isn't written. Of course, only some writers intentionally include everything or nothing. Others who do this might just be uncareful writers.

  2. Glad you liked this suggestion! It would be interesting, I think, to compare this book to one of Hemingway's short novels about a soldier after the war... maybe keep that one in mind for if you become a professor :)

  3. It has long been my dream to teach a class on World War I literature. I already have a good chunk of the syllabus planned out:) Also, I might keep this in mind as an independent study idea for grad school.