Monday, July 23, 2007
A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr--a review
I was interested in this book for two reasons, first of all because I had seen the movie years ago, and remembered liking it (and I’ll watch anything with Colin Firth in it), and secondly because I’m interested in anything in the New York Review of Books Classics catalog. Lately I’ve been happily reading books from this catalog that have been recommended by blogging friends, and have several going at the same time: The Dud Avocado (New York Review Books Classics) by Elaine Dundy, and Sleepless Nights (New York Review Books Classics) and Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (New York Review Books Classics), both by Elizabeth Hardwick.
A Month in the Country (New York Review Books Classics) is a wonderful little novel, about Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War who suffers from a nervous condition that would now be diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but then was probably called shell-shock. After his wife leaves him, Birkin takes a job to restore a medieval painting in a church in the small Yorkshire village of Oxgodby. Not only does Birkin find a kinship with this long-ago church painter, he also forges relationships with people in the present. One relationship, in particular, is bittersweet—he falls in love with Alice Keach, the lovely young wife of the annoying and difficult village vicar.
The writer doesn’t waste words, but his prose is evocative. He's one of those writers where you can find meaning between the words as well as in them. Everything good that surrounds Birkin, the natural world, the local people, the beauty he finds in art and in Alice, Carr describes with care and ultimately the reader comes away with an understanding of how Birkin is healed by his summer in Oxgodby. And there is a quiet humor and a subtlety in the way that Carr describes the people of Oxgodby that really appealed to me.
In the publisher’s descriptive paragraph, it says that “J.L. Carr’s deceptively simple story is a meditation on the redemptive power of art and community.” I agree wholeheartedly—it is a deceptively simple story, and I enjoyed watching Birkin become whole again during the summer he spends in Oxgodby, making friends with the local people and uncovering, piece by painstaking piece, a medieval painter’s masterpiece, hidden under centuries’ worth of paint and grime. Art and community, doing their healing work.