Literary paeans to the English countryside come a dime a dozen. What makes J. L. Carr's 1980 novel A Month in the Country different, worthy of inclusion in the select and pleasantly quirky group of New York Review Books Classics reprints, is not mere lyrical beauty but a rare generosity of vision and an ever alert sense of the absurd.
Carr, who died in 1994, at the age of eighty-two, took an off-center approach to what might seem a simple and straightforward tale. It is 1920—"another world." Tom Birkin, a shell-shocked veteran of the Great War, comes to the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby to restore a magnificent fourteenth-century fresco that has for hundreds of years been concealed beneath layers of paint and whitewash. The ripening summer, the slow but steady unveiling of the hidden masterpiece, Birkin's growing involvement with the villagers and their unremarkable doings, a nascent love and its almost immediate loss, all perform a transformative magic on him and equip him, in the end, for a return to his world and a renewed engagement with it.
A native of the region he wrote about, Carr evoked the village with uncanny intimacy. One of the novel's great achievements is its communication of the timelessness of rural life: the faintly ridiculous, deeply kind country people are recognizable avatars of the medieval churchgoers who gazed at Birkin's fresco and of their Stone Age ancestors. Arbitrarily imposed on an ancient way of life, Christianity is now, having outlived its time and its truth, just as arbitrarily fading away again; the festivals of the Church, as Oxgodby's depressed vicar is only too aware, are "no more than a pagan salute to the passing seasons," and the tragic events of the war have made them ever more irrelevant. Carr's picture of modern life encroaching on the age-old countryside owes something to Thomas Hardy, but his vision is more hopeful and forgiving. Intimations of modernity, he implies, do not threaten ancient patterns so much as offer the continuation of them under different guises, and A Month in the Country, for all its sadness, turns out to be a story of spiritual regeneration, even of resurrection.
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