One should always hesitate before calling a book “magical.” In fact, you probably shouldn’t do it more than once every three or four years. But sometimes, very rarely, I find that it’s the only adjective that works.
It took a while for J.L. Carr to cast his spell on me with A Month in the Country. The opening is frankly full of clichés I usually try to avoid. A couple of former soldiers, still recovering from their experiences in the trenches of World War I, are hired to restore the art in an old English church far away from the maddening crowd.
This is much too close to Downton Abbey territory for my taste, but I didn’t give up, in spite of the colorful locals, the curmudgeonly pastor and the possibility of illicit love.
It definitely helped that I was interested in the narrator’s project right from the start. Tom Birkin, on a break from his failed marriage and his life in general, has accepted an assignment to restore a recently discovered mural in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby. From the start he knows he has found something special; soon he develops a kinship with the artist who painted the mural of St. Michael at the last judgement hundreds of years earlier:
Once he’d begun (as I was now beginning) on the damned souls dithering on the brink of the flames or hurtling headlong into them, he’d switched to the cheap stuff, red earth and iron oxides. Even so, this concentration of similars saved it from odious comparison with the no-expense-spared Michael and his bloodthirsty furnace-hands. And he’d compensated too by his vigorous treatment: he’d really warmed to the work. Up at the top he’d done an extremely competent job, well, more than that, because he was master of his trade and couldn’t have done anything but a great job. But now, coming to this lower slope, he’d thrown in the lot–art and heart.
Mr. Carr avoids the many pitfalls other writers may have fallen into. While there is a love interest, Tom Birkin never seriously acts on it. The supporting cast of would be colorful locals spend most of their time just watching Birkin as he goes about his work, impressed by the mural as it is revealed. Birkin’s co-worker, an archeologist working on a suspected tomb site, serves as something of an acid-wit side-kick, but he never takes center stage long enough to spoil things.
So the magic started to work on me.
Birkin’s month in the country becomes a time suspended. He is away from his real life, engaged in work that will have no value beyond the doing of it. He meets people whom he feels a connection with but whom he knows he will never see again after his month’s employment is over. But this all works to create one of those magical summer months when we can live a bit outside of our own lives, and the book worked to create a similar effect for the time it took for me to read it.
I can’t say anything happened that dramatically moved me one way or another. I really didn’t come to love the characters in some special sort of unforgettable way. But for a while, the experience of reading A Month in the Country felt like the experience of living a month in the country.
From towards the end of the book:
Ah, those days…for many years afterwards their happiness haunted me. Sometimes, listening to music, I drift back and nothing has changed. The long end of summer. Day after day of warm weather, voices calling as night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness and, at day-break, the murmur of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young.
If it’d stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will always be another marvelous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.
“We must snatch at happiness as it flies.” I like that. I have found that to be true. If you can’t get the time away you need, you can always turn to J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. It’s a book I’m sure I will be coming back to again sometime.