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.