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A Month in the Country

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In J. L. Carr's deeply charged poetic novel, Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War and a broken marriage, arrives in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby where he is to restore a recently discovered medieval mural in the local church. Living in the bell tower, surrounded by the resplendent countryside of high summer, and laboring each day to uncover an anonymous painter's depiction of the apocalypse, Birkin finds that he himself has been restored to a new, and hopeful, attachment to life. But summer ends, and with the work done, Birkin must leave. Now, long after, as he reflects on the passage of time and the power of art, he finds in his memories some consolation for all that has been lost.

160 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1980

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About the author

J.L. Carr

21 books111 followers
Carr was born in Thirsk Junction, Carlton Miniott, Yorkshire, into a Wesleyan Methodist family. His father Joseph, the eleventh son of a farmer, went to work for the railways, eventually becoming a station master for the North Eastern Railway. Carr was given the same Christian name as his father and the middle name Lloyd, after David Lloyd George, the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer. He adopted the names Jim and James in adulthood. His brother Raymond, who was also a station master, called him Lloyd.

Carr's early life was shaped by failure. He attended the village school at Carlton Miniott. He failed the scholarship exam, which denied him a grammar school education, and on finishing his school career he also failed to gain admission to teacher training college. Interviewed at Goldsmiths' College, London, he was asked why he wanted to be a teacher. Carr answered: "Because it leaves so much time for other pursuits." He was not accepted. Over forty years later, after his novel The Harpole Report was a critical and popular success, he was invited to give a talk at Goldsmiths'. He replied that the college once had its chance of being addressed by him.
He worked for a year as an unqualified teacher — one of the lowest of the low in English education — at South Milford Primary School, where he became involved in a local amateur football team which was startlingly successful that year. This experience he developed into the novel How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the F.A. Cup. He then successfully applied to a teacher training college in Dudley. In 1938 he took a year out from his teaching career to work as an exchange teacher in Huron, South Dakota in the Great Plains. Much of the year was a struggle to survive in what was a strangely different culture to him; his British salary converted into dollars was pitifully inadequate to meet American costs of living. This experience gave rise to his novel The Battle of Pollocks Crossing.

At the end of his year in the USA Carr continued his journey westward and found himself travelling through the Middle East and the Mediterranean as the Second World War loomed. He arrived in France in September 1939 and reached England, where he volunteered for service in the Royal Air Force. He was trained as an RAF photographer and stationed in West Africa, later serving in Britain as an intelligence officer, an experience he translated into fiction with A Season in Sinji.

At the end of the War he married Sally (Hilda Gladys Sexton) and returned to teaching. He was appointed headmaster of Highfields Primary School in Kettering, Northamptonshire, a post he filled from 1952 to 1967 in a typically idiosyncratic way which earned the devotion of staff and pupils alike. He returned to Huron, South Dakota, in 1957 to teach again on an exchange visit, when he wrote and published himself a social history of The Old Timers of Beadle County.

In 1967, having written two novels, he retired from teaching to devote himself to writing. He produced and published from his own Quince Tree Press a series of 'small books' designed to fit into a pocket: some of them selections from English poets, others brief monographs about historical events, or works of reference. In order to encourage children to read, each of the "small books" was given two prices, the lower of which applied only to children. As a result, Carr received several letters from adults in deliberately childish writing in an attempt to secure the discount.

He also carried on a single-handed campaign to preserve and restore the parish church of Saint Faith at Newton in the Willows, which had been vandalised and was threatened with redundancy. Carr, who appointed himself its guardian, came into conflict with the vicar of the benefice, and higher church authorities, in his attempts to save the church. The building was saved, but his crusade was also a failure in that redundancy was not averted and the building is now a scientific study centre.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,045 reviews
Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,465 reviews3,618 followers
March 3, 2021
What does it take to be happy? First of all it takes tranquility. And so often the happiest days of our life are those when nothing crucial happened.
So a month in the country was a real treat to the protagonist and A Month in the Country is a real treat to a reader…
Well, we all see things with different eyes, and it gets you nowhere hoping that even one in a thousand will see things your way.

The novel is also a deepest contemplation on the nature of art and history and the harmony of life…
We can ask and ask but we can't have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face. They've gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

Human kindness is the best cure for loneliness and melancholy.
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
March 3, 2019
"But then, inevitably, as happens to most of us, first through Saturday umpiring, later Sunday chapel, I was drawn into the changing picture of Oxgodby itself. But, oddly, what happened outside was like a dream. It was inside the still church, before its reappearing picture, that was real. I drifted across the rest. As I have said--like a dream. For a time."

Tom Birken is summoned to the countryside from the teaming streets of London to practice his craft revealing a Medieval painting that was originally painted 500 years previously, and had been whitewashed over about a hundred years later. It is a picture of doom predating the fantastical, terrifying visions of Bruegel by at least a hundred years.

Mad Meg by Pieter Bruegel

Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel

Birken in 1920 is a shattered man. He has survived the war, but experienced his own vision of hell on the battle field of Passchendaele. The estimations are that the British allies and the Germans each lost over 200,000 men between July and November of 1917. He emerged from the wreckage of that battle, shell shocked, and still three years later betrays himself with a stammer and twitching cheek when he is experiencing a stressful moment. He has acquired a skill, a skill nearly expired, of carefully revealing and preserving old murals on church walls. The Oxgodby job is a gift, maybe one of the few remaining times when he will practice his craft. "Our jobs are our private fantasies, our disguises, the clock we can creep inside to hide." He has a wife who has betrayed him, a war that has wounded him, and a world that is telling him that his skills are obsolete. He needed this job.


He has no idea what is behind the whitewash, but it isn't long before he knows he is working on a masterpiece. "So, each day, I released a few more inches of a seething cascade of bones, joints and worm-riddled vitals frothing over the fiery weir. It was breathtaking. A tremendous waterfall of color, the blues of the apex falling, then seething into a turbulence of red; like all truly great works of art, hammering you with its whole before beguiling you with its parts."

Medieval era wall mural

He meets a man named Moon who is camping in a tent in the cemetery and has been commissioned to find the bones of an ancestor for their patron. As time goes on, and both men realize how simply wonderful this moment in time has been for them, they start to linger in their work, making it last, not wanting it to end. There is a story about Moon that you will have to read the book to discover.

Oh and lets not forget that Birken meets a woman. Not just any woman, but one of those women that turn your knees to jelly and in the case of Birken make his cheek twitch. She is the vicar's wife, Mrs. Alice Keach. She was much younger than Keach(the vicar), no more than nineteen or twenty, and she was very lovely. More than just pleasant-looking I mean; she was quite enchanting. Her neck was uncovered to her bosom, and immediately, I was reminded of Botticelli--not his Venus--the Primavera. It was partly her wonderfully oval face and partly the easy way she stood. I'd seen enough paintings to know beauty when I saw it and, in this out of the way place, here it was before me."

Netflix has yet again let me down. There is a movie from 1987 starring Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth, but Netflix does not have it. At this point it appears I will have to buy it to see it. I can only hope that they do the book justice.

Kenneth Branagh as Moon. Natasha Richardson as Alice Keach. Colin Firth as Birken.

The introduction to the book in the NYRB version is written by Michael Holroydand it is excellent. I love it when an introduction fires up the reader to read the book. He talks about his own odd intersection with J. L. Carr, but the most resonating bit he shares is in regards to Carr's funeral.

"Carr died in 1994 and his funeral service in the Kettering parish church was, in the words of Byron Rogers, 'like the passing of a spymaster.' He had such disparate interests that there seem to have been many J. L. Carrs, and since he compartmentalized his friendships, few of his friends knew each other. 'What I remember most about his funeral service was the fidgeting...as the mourners kept squinting sideways to speculate about their neighbors,' Rogers wrote. 'Then, at the very last minute there was a clatter of high heels and a very young, very beautiful woman came in, dressed in fashionable black. She came alone and at the end was gone, just as abruptly, into the March afternoon.' No one knew her or could find out who she was--an ex-pupil, mistress, cricketer, flower-arranger, Sunday School teacher...but readers of A Month in the Country may feel that she had stepped out of its pages.

Don't miss this one, a more than pleasant diversion for a Sunday afternoon. You will be right there in Oxgodby falling in love, gnashing your teeth over the absurdity of it all,enjoying the peacefulness of knowing, really knowing you are happy, and you too might discover the importance of lingering over a moment, a glorious moment when life seems to be working for you and not against you. If you are like me you might even find yourself yelling "for godsakes take her in your arms and kiss her." Highly Recommended!

The Mysterious J. L. Carr

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
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Profile Image for Cecily.
1,137 reviews4,177 followers
March 27, 2018
Tom Birkin is hired to reveal and restore a Medieval church mural, covered up over four-hundred years earlier. Expertly peeling back the layers of lime and grime, what he finds on the walls is unexpected in subject and quality. What he learns about people, especially himself, is unexpected too: the process of restoration is personally restorative.

Don’t let the bland cover or blurb lead you to think this is just the charming story of the healing effect of a bucolic month in a quiet village. It is that. But it’s much more.

JL Carr elegantly squeezes great breadth and depth in a mere 102 pages: mystery, love, tragedy, humour, sociological analysis, lost opportunities, friendship, art, and general beauty. It’s a nuanced mix that deftly weaves a few dark undercurrents in a rural idyll. How, in 1920, a penniless survivor of shell-shock, whose wife has gone, finds peace and contentment in the ordinary.

Yes, it describes a single month, with little backstory, even less afterstory, and not much happening, but Birkin emerges from Oxgodby changed for the better, and so did I, a little.

Picture: Entrance to a country church of my childhood ©Angela Davison

“Enemy Country”?

That’s the phrase the war veteran thinks of when he arrives in the small, poor Yorkshire village that is “starveling country”!

He plans to live simply and be happy, so that “afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore”. He believes in hope, and the locals are interested, interesting, and friendly. The “steady rhythm of living and working… a foot in both present and past” quickly infuses contentment.

Birkin is not the only outsider. There’s the grumpy vicar, Keach (who resents the disruption caused by the restoration), his very young and beautiful wife, Alice, and finally, Charles Moon. All four are 30 or younger, though Keach in particular seems older.

Love the Country

Birkin, a Londoner, discovers a visceral empathy with and appreciation of nature and the countryside from his very first morning.

The rain had ceased and dew glittered on the graveyard grass, gossamer drifted down air-currents… And as it lightened, a vast and magnificent landscape unfolded.

He loves “letting the summer soak into me” by eating outside, and soon feels part of the landscape.

Those long warm days went on in majestic succession… The Vale was heavy with leaves, motionless in the early morning, black caves of shadow in the midday heat, blurring the sound of trains hammering north and south.

Love of Detail and Workmanship

Birkin’s artistic sensitivity and training make him an excellent describer of furniture, machines, architecture, and even people and the broader context of ancient lives.

A single immense piece of furniture like an internal buttress. In any ordinary room it would have been grotesque but, here, it fell into perfect scale. I’ve no idea what it was. It could have been a Baroque altar-piece, an oriental throne, a gigantic examination exercise performed by a cabinet-maker’s apprentice.

When he realises the full wonder of what he’s revealing, Birkin slows down, like a reader who doesn’t want to finish a brilliant book. He becomes
Like a greedy child [who] hoards the best chocolates in the box. Each day I used to avoid taking in the whole by giving exaggerate attention to the particular”.

I love Carr’s attention to detail and workmanship.

Medieval Murals

Two demons with delicately furred legs clutched him, one snapping his right wrist whilst his mate split him with shears.

That description reminded me of some of the grisly medieval Romanesque religious art in the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, including these I photographed a few years ago:

Picture: Detail of Apse of Santa Maria d'Àneu - merely intriguing


Picture: Altar frontal from Avià - positively horrific

Odd Couplings

Birkin considers odd couples more than once, especially Keach and Alice, and how utterly different they are at home, compared with elsewhere.

He and Moon are a very different pair (not a couple): both are ex-army, spending the summer funded by a bequest from Miss Hebron (in Moon’s case, he has to find the missing grave of an ancestor). But Moon lives in a hole, while Birkin lives up a ladder in the belfry.

There are other pairs and opposites, not just human, including church and chapel, town and country.

There’s also a woman proffering apples to a man - in the church. You can’t get more Old Testament than that.

Dark and Light

This story is infused with summer sun:
Ah, those days… for many years afterwards their happiness haunted me.
“Haunted”? Yes, because sunlight creates shadows.

And horror is dark all along. Birkin survived Passchendaele, but was left with a stammer (not reflected in dialogue), intermittent facial palsy on one side, and no wife.

There is forbidden love of at least two kinds (“coddling it up in myself”), missed opportunities, and a casual revelation by a third party that forever affects a friendship. I’m not quite sure what message Carr intended with the last of those.

As it’s a summer story, the coming change of season alters the mood:
The first breath of autumn was in the air, a prodigal feeling, a feeling of wanting, taking, and keeping before it’s too late.


Reading this, I’d be immersed in simple wonder at the beauty of birdsong, landscape, or architectural stone, and then a deftly-planted question would poke up, but without the promise of flowering, and indeed, only some did. I loved that.

How did Miss Hebron first know there was a mural there (she revealed and then covered a little of it herself)? She was wealthy, so why pay for restoration only after her death? Why did she care about why her forebear was not buried in the churchyard, and where he was laid to rest? How and why did the village acquire and lose wealth? But others are answered - surprisingly, but satisfactorily: . A perfect balance.

There was even a moment when “an extraordinary thing happened” and I briefly wondered if it might turn into a ghost story:
That house seemed to gather around one like a shadow.

Luke 16

This is one mystery that annoyed me. Birkin makes two references to the mural probably being of Luke 16: initially, he refers to “the judge and his bailiff; below them, three Lords of Luke 16” and later, it’s “the three brothers” of the same chapter. But Luke 16 has two stories: the unjust steward, and Lazarus and the rich man. No threes, let alone brothers. What have I missed?

You can read the whole, short chapter here (New International Version).

Closing Thoughts

The past is gone. It can't be reclaimed or rewritten. One missed opportunity may be missed for ever, but with luck, there will be others. We can only learn from it and wait for any pain to pass.

In memory, it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long dry on a put-down pen.

That this is, nevertheless, a hopeful book, regardless of regrets, is a huge tribute to the author.

A clear 5* read.
Profile Image for Fionnuala.
791 reviews
October 15, 2017
When we pick up a book by an author we haven’t read before, we have only the vaguest notion of what themes it will contain. We don't know how those themes will be treated, what attention to detail we will find or if the language will delight us or otherwise. Before we turn over that first page, it is all as blank as a whitewashed wall. We may bring expectations to the blank piece of wall, expectations based on the period the book is set in or from the opinions of readers we trust, but any clarity on the book’s contents will remain largely hidden.

Sometimes our expectations are rewarded right at the beginning.
On the first page of this book, I found myself tumbling onto the platform of Oxgodby station alongside the narrator, and the way in which those first words were assembled announced clearly that this was going to be an especially rewarding read. I didn’t quite know how the author would manage this feat but I was confident it would turn out to be so. And although it was a slow reveal, within the first few pages I saw many more signs of promise, a little brush stroke here so that a particular character came into better focus, a little sketch there so that I gained a clearer idea of the background, a little foreshadowing so that I could make a stab at guessing the main theme, a little mystery so that I knew there remained riches yet to be discovered.

As I read on, my first impressions took definite shape and I was able to admire the craft with which the story unfolded. I understood why the author lingered on such and such an idea, why he mentioned that particular subject more than once. As the pages read became greater than the pages left to read, I was able to guess at pretty much everything that remained to be told except for one or two details, but I still delighted in the manner of the telling and the little traces of humour inserted in the text like private jokes between the author and the narrator. It was clear to me too that there was no editorial interference; Carr shaped this book to fit the pattern and timing of the central theme, and without any thought for the dictates of the publishing world or any particular genre it might be expected to fit into. He was a master of his craft.

The book was a treasure that was slowly uncovered; when it was fully exposed, I was astounded by the beauty of the work in its entirety and the image it left on my consciousness will remain with me for a long time to come.
J.L. Carr, I salute you. You were a true artist.
Profile Image for Sue.
1,272 reviews548 followers
May 3, 2015
This will likely enter the list of my all-time favorite books. I found myself saying "glorious" several times and then stopping to thank my parents for instilling in me their love of reading. That brought me so belatedly to this treasure of a book.

I know that the basic story is well known, the young re-patriated soldier, spending a month in the English countryside at a small chapel, tasked to uncover a centuries old mural. But the tale is so much more than that because the prose is so much more than that. Carr captures moments in so many ways. One small moment:

The sound of bees foraging from flower to flower
seemed to deepen the stillness.

I've experienced such moments but never seen it written so.

And a longer evocation of the land he was coming to love:

There was so much time that marvelous summer. Day
after day, mist rose from the meadow as the sky
lightened and hedges, barns and woods took shape until,
at last, the long curving back of the hills lifted
away from the Plain. It was a sort of stage magic---
"Now you don't see; indeed, there is nothing to see.
Now look!" Day after day it was like that and each
morning I leaned on the yard gate dragging at my first
fag and (I'd like to think) marveling at this splendid
backcloth. But it can't have been so; I'm not the
marveling kind. Or was I then? But one thing is sure---
I had a feeling of immense content and, if I thought at
all, it was that I'd like this to go on and on...

(p 61)

Simply put, this book has given me all I look for: a cascade of words that ring so true and are beautifully written; wonderfully realised characters even though we know them so briefly; a perfect setting (especially for an Anglophile who loves art and archaeology); and a simple story about complex people.

I would rated this more than 5 if I could.
Profile Image for Brina.
933 reviews4 followers
July 19, 2017
I am a seasonal reader, often craving books with sizzling settings in the summer months and snowy locales in the winter. Last week I saw a review for J. L. Carr's Man Booker winning A Month in the Country and was intrigued enough by the title to read it for myself. Using stunning prose combined with well developed characters, Carr's novella is perfect for a leisurely summer morning.

Tom Birkin had survived the Great War yet returned alienated from civilian life. While in present times his feelings can be ascribed to survivor's guilt or post traumatic stress disorder, in 1920 Birkin did not have an outlet for his feelings. His wife Vinny had left him for another man, leaving the door open for his return. Disillusioned with life as a temporarily single man in London, Birkin accepts a job in a small northern hamlet of Oxgodby to unearth a painting and artist from the 1340s. Even though this out of the way life is not what Birkin had envisioned for himself, he welcomes the opportunity to get out of his situation and avoid the present mess of his marriage.

While in Oxgodby, Birkin encounters a quaint cast of characters. Fellow excavator Michael Moon has come north for the same reasons as Birkin. The two share war stories and their views on life in general as they attempt to meet their deadlines in unearthing medieval men. As the two outsiders enjoy a cordial relationship, Birkin also interacts with locals. Kathy Ellenbeck is a precocious fourteen year old who seems to know everything about everyone. I found her exchanges to be humorous. Meanwhile, Birkin is smitten with the vicar's wife, Alice Keach. A young woman of no more than twenty, Alice is both intuitive and beautiful, yet off limits. It is through his and Alice's non relationship that allows Birkin to assess his own life situation.

In his novella, Carr employs descriptive prose that has me longing for a countryside. Warm summer days are perfect for picnics, budding romances, and staying up late contemplating one's role in life. Carr develops characters in Birkin and Moon who are non believers yet are employed by a church. Most of the action occurs within the belfry where Birkin works and sleeps, even the contrast as he fights an inner impulse to strike up relations with Alice. For a male author, I enjoyed Carr's development of his female characters and was glad that they were simply platonic.

All good things come to an end. Birkin narrates this story while looking back 58 years later having never returned to Oxgodby. The story moved by quickly and Birkin finished his work, the church goers almost relieved when he returned to London. Carr's story is indeed appropriate for a lazy summer morning. A Month in the Country is a relaxing novella with strong characters for a summer day, and, like Birkin, when I was finished reading it, it was time to get on with my everyday life. 4 solid stars.
Profile Image for Dolors.
540 reviews2,278 followers
October 21, 2015
“If I’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 be another marvelous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.”

Do we recognize happiness when we live it?
Or is it a condition we only perceive in retrospection remembering the past through the rose-tinted glasses of memory?

Wales, 1978. Thomas Birkin, a survivor of the Great War, travels back in time to the 1920s and reconstructs a month spent in the rural village of Oxgodby, North Yorkshire. Employed to recover a concealed medieval painting on the wall of the local church, Thomas believes that a change of scenery will soothe the scars the bloodbath of war and a shattered marriage have imprinted on him. Regardless of his skeptical attitude towards religion, the placid rhythm of summer days ripened by the sun and the quaint temperament of some of the townspeople will guide him inadvertently, not only to uncover the mysteries surrounding the mural painting, but also towards his spiritual restoration.

“This is what I need, I thought - a new start and, afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore.”

Thomas is a product of his generation.
Gifted with excessive self-awareness, uncommon lucidity and a rare sense of humor, he speaks from the intimacy of a first-person narrator and makes the reader a sensory participant of the impact a few weeks spent among strangers in self-effacing examination, of how a tiny parcel of his history, infused him with a renewed zest for life.

J.L. Carr’s masterstroke is to tinge the mural of Thomas’ chronicle with a gossamer of vivid observations that sparkle the old flame of hope, which glows brighter than ever when Alice Keach, the Minister’s wife, pierces through Thomas’ numbness with her curious vitality.
The world unfolds in a palette of intricate details, delightful snapshots of daily postcards. A blooming rose in a hat, the comfortable dampness of concentrated craft under the roof timbers, the buzz of insects and the twittering of birds and blades of grass swaying with the gentle breeze, passers-by that matter and others that don’t leave track, silent conversations with the Moon, the lazy hours of a summer inexorably crawling towards a perennial exuberance, the intoxicating scent of serendipitous friendship, of wistful love, sweet, fleeting, unattainable, of wanting to memorize the shape of an oval face before it is too late, the devastating certainty of knowing it is gone forever.
To feel pain means to be alive and the resolution to pursue happiness is a courageous vow that Thomas is willing to take.

The fallen man of the mural painting couldn’t have imagined that a fellow artist would recover his masterpiece, lost to the world under whitewash for more than five centuries. Thomas Birkin never envisioned being haunted by happiness fifty years after a life-altering moment that presented itself wrapped in balustrades of washed-out color. And there was no way I could have known the heart-wrenching journey to the past that awaited me in barely a hundred pages.

Do we glorify the past in order to cope with the present as a form of self-protection? I suppose we do. But if giving way to nostalgic reverie allows us not to regret missed opportunites that choke us in waves of self-pity and prompts us to be grateful for small streaks of fortune instead, I will settle on melancholy any given day. Only then, the tugging at the heart for moments gone for good might leave a sweet, lingering taste in our lips, like the promise of an unsealed kiss, of not squandered words, that might last the span of a lifetime.
Profile Image for Warwick.
842 reviews14.6k followers
September 7, 2014
This is the sort of efficient novella that demands a short, incisive review full of judiciously-chosen adjectives, and presumably that's what it will get if MJ ever gets around to reading it. In my case, however, it's unfortunately one of those texts that is going to send me off on a long personal anecdote, for which I offer advance apologies.

When I was twenty-one I ended up, for a variety of reasons, living in Quito, Ecuador. The city in those days was a steamy melting-pot of different nationalities, full of Colombian exiles that had fled the violence north of the border, and teeming with renegade expats from a scattering of unusual countries. My closest acquaintances included an American Vietnam vet, a British army deserter, a Colombian street artist, a badly-disguised CIA agent, a drug-dealer for the Medellín cartel and an Italian architect who kept a Picasso hidden under his bed. It was a weird time. But the first person I met there was a girl from Sweden called Lina. We lived in the same building, and on my first night in the city she took me out for a Mexican and we got hammered on strawberry daiquiris, and the evening slowly evolved into a strange date which she orchestrated with Scandinavian directness: ‘You buy me a drink now. You take me dancing now.’ I was charmed.

I had come to South America to get over someone after an awful breakup, and so I wasn't looking for anything. I wanted zero complications. Right? Sure. As I said to myself on several occasions. So nothing happened that night. Nothing happened the next night either, or any of the nights that followed as we got involved in the strange life of Quito, and dealt with death threats and psychotic outbreaks and false passports and the other things affecting our circle of friends. And we got to know each other quite well. We went away together for a couple of weekends, and talked about past relationships; and most evenings in Ecuador ended with us on our balcony as the sun came up, finishing a bottle of rum and sharing stories. We both had a couple of flings with random people, but nothing very serious.

And then eventually after nine months or so I'd run out of money, and some job offer had come through in England, and I found myself spending the last of my funds on a plane ticket back to London. We drank a lot in my final week. On the last night we just sat on our balcony for hours and had a bottle of rum and listened to the sounds coming out of the karaoke bar two doors down. And when we went back inside she brought me into her room, for the first time since I'd arrived, to say goodbye. And I don't know if it was because of timidity or inexperience or a desire not to spoil anything, or drunkenness, or accumulated misunderstanding, but neither of us did anything except say goodnight and goodbye.

And I'm very annoyed about it. After everything we went through we deserved to have it end in some shared moment of sexiness, instead of petering out the way it did. You worry a lot about situations like that when you're in them, and then later you realize that you were worrying about exactly the wrong aspects of them.

I have no room left to actually review this book, except to say that the situation I'm badly describing is one that novelists don't often try to address, preferring as they do to deal with actual, rather than potential, love affairs. But this book does, and it does it really well. It's the 20s, not the 90s; it's Yorkshire, not Ecuador; she's a vicar's wife, not a Swedish charity worker; most of all, he's a shell-shocked First World War veteran instead of a lazy arts graduate. Even so, there are moments where you recognize every word.
Profile Image for Candi.
622 reviews4,714 followers
July 25, 2023
“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 you’re reading this review and can say that no such thoughts ever caused your heart to swell or perhaps made a tear prick the corner of your eye, then I’d say give it a few more years. Although, no matter what age, we always have some fond memory of a time in our early childhood or our young adulthood that will give us pause. I may have wished for this story of a young man’s healing after the horrors of World War I and Passchendaele to go on for another hundred pages or more, but I’ve come to terms with the fact J.L. Carr said all he needed to in this slim novel. It’s one that sneaks up on you, feeling relatively simple at first. The sting from it might catch you off guard. Like the slow, deep burn after a big gulp of a good bourbon. I’m wondering how long before the bittersweet pang lessens and I can move on.

“… I was drawn into the changing picture of Oxgodby itself. But, oddly, what happened outside was like a dream. It was inside the still church, before its reappearing picture, that was real. I drifted across the rest. As I have said – like a dream. For a time.”

Tom Birkin is commissioned to restore a medieval painting in a rural Yorkshire village church. He’s left behind a shattered marriage in addition to the scars left by war. This is a very ordinary story, really. But the people that come into his life during this short time leave an extraordinary mark and a long-lasting effect. We know this as he is telling us this tale years after it has occurred. The impact is palpable. Art’s power to mend souls and reveal truth is a big theme here. But there’s a whole lot more packed into a mere 135 pages. As we, along with Birkin, encounter the inhabitants of this idyllic little town, we experience a search for identity, various forms of friendship, and love. I wanted to say forbidden love. But what is “forbidden” love, really? If one loves, whether or not it is reciprocated or socially acceptable, it is still love, isn’t it? Missed opportunities, however… Well, we all know about those.

“… the first breath of autumn was in the air, a prodigal feeling, a feeling of wanting, taking, and keeping before it is too late.”

Before I’ve wrongly convinced you that this is a somber tale, let me say it’s not at all! Wistful and nostalgic? Yes. Hopeful? Most definitely. Will you be thinking about your own life stories, the chances offered and perhaps passed by? Of course. But it will also reveal to you how those little moments in the past have shaped you into the person you are right now. There are still moments there to grab. You’re not done yet.

"You’ll find that, once you’ve dragged yourself off round the corner, there’ll be another view; it may even be a better one.”
Profile Image for Annet.
570 reviews736 followers
January 9, 2020
'You're happy, Mr Birkin. You're not on edge any more. Is it because the work is going well? Of course, she was right. Anyway, partly right. Standing up there on the platform before a great work of art, feeling kinship with its creator, cosily knowing that I was sort of impresario conjuring and teasing back his work after four hundred years of darkness. But that wasn't all of it. There was this weather, this landscape, thick woods, roadsides deep in grass and wild flowers. And to the south and north of the Vale, low hills, frontiers of a mysterious country...
Beautifully written, poetic small story....
Like many Goodreads friends here, I would describe this book as exquisite and touching... Wonderful indeed. Slow start though, the story has to grow on you.

A damaged survivor of the 1st World War, Tom Birkin finds refuge in the village church of Oxgodby where he is to spend the summer uncovering a huge medieval wall painting. And gradually he finds himself again....
Profile Image for Robin.
493 reviews2,723 followers
March 18, 2018
Can you remember a time in your life when you were truly happy?

If I search my memories, I find a sixteen year old girl sitting in a canoe, with a boy, fishing at two o'clock in the morning by the eerie light of the midnight sun, on a glassy lake near Whitehorse, Yukon. Everything is tingly and pulsing with youth. I look a little more and see myself choking back tears on a hospital bed with my beloved grandfather, hearing him say "I'm still your grandpa, Robin", knowing I would never see him again, but feeling gratitude for the absolute purity of the moment. I look again, and watch myself, a brand new mother, rocking my baby during one of our midnight meetings, in the stillness, the newborn puzzle piece nested against my breast. Unconditional love was being hatched in my heart.

Those moments are the jewels of life.

J.L. Carr's novella explores such perfect times, through the character of Tom Birkin. Set in the summer of 1920, but related in 1978, an older Birkin is remembering the month during which he is hired to uncover a medieval mural in a church in northern England. Damaged by time served in WWI and a bad marriage, Birkin arrives at Oxgodby fairly shattered and alone. This time serves as a salve on his heart, a reminder of the beauty of art, but also of nature, of simple pastoral idyls and country people. As he uncovers the painting, he is also uncovering the masterpiece of his self, his wonder at the world and whatever lies ahead.

I had a feeling of immense content and, if I thought at all, it was that I'd like this to go on and on, no-one going, no-one coming, autumn and winter always loitering around the corner, the summer's ripeness lasting forever, nothing disturbing the even tenor of my way.

The story is bittersweet though, and as much as my heart swells, it is also anguished. The perfect time comes to its inevitable conclusion. The time, like any other, becomes anthologized into history. That which felt never-ending, ended. Chances ran out. Opportunities untaken. But, the older Birkin is aware that perfect moments can stretch into an imperfect life. Things could have turned out differently, but would they have lasted? Is it better that the memories remain totally untainted, a glimmering reminder that life can be hopeful, warm and gentle? This reader was aching for lovers to kiss in the church belfry, but instead, the fleeting month is chastely frozen in time, like a painting, full of promise and optimism.

If I had stayed there, would I have always been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.
Profile Image for Adina .
889 reviews3,536 followers
April 11, 2017
A Month In The Country was my second choice for the The Mookse and the Gripes group revisit of the 1980 Booker shortlist. I selected this novel for two reasons: its brevity and the positive reviews it received from some of my friends. I admit that the subject was not of interest to me, life in the country does not feel too enticing. What can I say, I am a city girl. I love nature but for short periods of time. Actually, three stars is the highest rating I gave to a novel about country life. For me, Levin's story in Anna Karenina was the most excruciatingly boring piece of literature I've read. So you should take my rating as an endorsement of this book's quality.

I've waited for a week before writing a review because I did not have much to say and, as I am typing, I realize I still don't. You know, it was lovely and melodic. The setting was idyllic, rolling hills, sheep, a nice little church with a hidden painting waiting to be revealed by our main character. The people were all so nice, some had a bit of mystery around them which could have been more explored, in my opinion. A bit of unexpressed illicit love. And way too much religious hymns and conversation.

A nice little novel to fill an afternoon tucked cozily in an armchair, watching out the window how the flower blossom.
Profile Image for Kalliope.
691 reviews22 followers
February 16, 2016


There is an art in trying to uncover what time hides. And the uncovering itself is also a process of multiple restorations, of bringing back to life, of claiming back from the past what could be foregone: beauty, suffering, happiness, fear, life, death, and hope. They all function in cycles, with troughs and climaxes. One goes and the other one arrives.

Images can be projected and recollections can be written.

A calendar of memory can be read like a book. Nature in its periodic seasons reanimates the life in us, the past and future life. The dead leaves or loves sediment and new feelings sprout and grow and a new impulse continues.


The masked handprint left by an anonymous individual on a wall may invite from its hidden place for its uncovering and thereby regenerate another, unrelated, individual. A mouth of Hell depicted, beautifully, may summon up the will to live after walking through a war of hell.

For art can transform a stilted and stultifying message lost in its dire religion into an edifying inspiration. It opens seeing beyond the dated and emptied forms.


For memory renders life again, a resurrection or promise after a final judgment.



(*) - St. Clement of Tahull.
(**) - Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry - detail of September
(***) - Holy Trinity, Coventry.
(****) - Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry - detail of April
Profile Image for Paul.
1,217 reviews1,964 followers
February 7, 2021
I intend to read some novels that are first World War based for this year’s anniversary and this one is the first. It is a novella by a rather eccentric teacher turned writer which absolutely captures a time and place. The plot is straightforward. Tom Birkin is a WW1 veteran who was injured at Passchendaele and is troubled by his memories and dreams and by a failed marriage. It is the summer of 1920 and Birkin has taken a job in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby. He is to uncover a medieval mural that has been painted over for many years. His living accommodation is the belfry of the Church. Nearby another war veteran, James Moon is digging for a lost grave which may hold some sort of secret because it was placed outside of the churchyard. He also has his scars from the war.
There is a full cast of local characters; the local vicar and his beautiful wife and the rival Wesleyan Methodists. Carr, being brought up in the Wesleyan tradition captures the chapel rituals and attendees very well. Carr said he wanted the effect to be something like Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree in relation to the local characters.
The novella is beautifully written. It is a hot summer and has the nostalgic feel of soporific summers long gone and barely imagined. It feels a little like Cider with Rosie; the end of an age. The remoteness of the village means there is a lag with the changes taking place in society. It feels like the end of something and Birkin feels that as well. Carr illustrates rural crafts and customs about to disappear. He even mentions the food. Seed Cake!! My grandmother used to make seed cake; it’s rarely seen now. It is about love, loss, pain and healing; but it is all subtly done.
Birkin is looking back from 1978 and I am reminded of Hartley’s quote “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”. There are also interesting reflections about art and the relationship between the painter and the latter day restorer. There is potential for Birkin to have a relationship, but that would have spoilt the subtlety of the whole thing. It is a wonderful, subtle and heartbreaking novel; one of the best in this genre I am sure.
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,308 reviews2,191 followers
September 20, 2023
There is so much about this short novel that defines a perfect read for me . It’s a quiet story where seemingly nothing happens, but yet there is so much that happens in ordinary moments of life , which for me make them extraordinary. I always enjoy these intimate, introspective stories and I felt for Tom Birkin right away . The writing is lovely. What more could I ask for?

Tom Birken is hired to restore a medieval mural in a church in a small village in Yorkshire . He has a the terrible facial twitch and shell shock, a survivor of WWI. His wife has left him . At the outset, I couldn’t help but wonder and hope if this time in this place in the country would provide a means of solace and way to healing for him. He tells his story of the time he spent there many years later . Carr presents us with a delightful cast of characters as well. Moon, commissioned to find a grave site on the church grounds becomes a friend , sharing a past in the war. Kathy Ellerbeck, the pesty, but lovable teenage daughter of the Station master brings music and invitations to the family’s Sunday dinner . Then there’s the lovely wife of the Vicar, Alice Keach.

I won’t tell what this time in the country did for Tom ; you need to discover it for yourself. I will say what it did for me . The descriptions of the countryside were breathtaking. The kind that made me reread multiple passages . Carr took me into Tom’s heart and mind. It reminded me, at a time when life sometimes gets in the way of my reading, that this book is why I love to read .

Thanks to my friend Lisa whose recent review reminded me that this book has been on my list for way too long. It quickly went from my to read list to my favorites of the year list .
Profile Image for Katie.
277 reviews356 followers
July 21, 2017
3.5 stars. This wasn’t what I expected, especially initially. I thought it was written in the 1920s and would be an understated tastefully written meditation on the healing powers of art. Instead the narrator is a bantering almost Jack-the laddish character who refers to his backside as his bum and imagines the vicar and his wife having sex. I was a bit shocked until I saw it was written in 1980.

Half way through I was wondering what all the fuss is about. It was confusing me. The narrator is a shellshocked World War One veteran who is hired to restore a fresco in a church that has mysteriously been painted over. But there was another shellshocked veteran called Moon hired to solve another mystery of the village’s past. Why was the central character duplicated? And instead of the fresco the focus of the novel turned to the narrator’s crush on the vicar’s wife. What was that all about? I don’t think I ever quite understood except for the rather banal truism that there’s nothing like romance to heal a blighted soul. Also the narrative begins to focus on his visits to various people in the surrounding countryside. The large cast of characters began to seem more suitable for a novel of 300 pages than a novella of only eighty. Especially when we’re introduced to another potential love interest who, it turns out, will make one appearance in the narrative and then vanish. It all seemed very muddled to me. Little sideshows like this can dull a book’s focus, especially in one as short as this.

I enjoyed the final third more. Suddenly the fresco comes to life. It’s a depiction of Christ’s Judgement and one face in particular haunts the narrator. But oddly this character in the painting has far more relevance to Moon’s fate than it does to the narrator’s, though it appears the narrator doesn’t see this. In fact, more than once, I wondered if this Moon, a black sheep as it turns out, wouldn’t have been a more compelling centrepiece for this story. But he never gets to experience his epiphany in the novel. There’s a mood now of summer dying into autumn. And a poignant sense of how fleeting the idyllic moment is; how the present becomes the past in the blink of an eyelid. The writing, especially the nature description, is excellent throughout. For me though there was a lack of artistry in the way Carr organised his material, some of which didn’t even seem to belong in the novel. At the end of the day it was much more a novella about a missed romantic opportunity than the psychological consequences of war or the healing potential of art. In the final paragraphs Carr tries to shift the focus from the vicar’s wife to the sustaining noblesse of artistic aspiration but it felt a bit forced. As a nostalgic elegy for the virtues of pastoral life it works better. Though one could argue none of those virtues has wholly vanished and this is essentially a sentimental view of change. What vanishes is one’s youth – the young person one once was who enjoyed these virtues.
Profile Image for Barbara.
285 reviews244 followers
May 19, 2021
"We can ask and ask but we can't have again what once seemed ours forever."

Sometimes peace of mind and tranquility take a lifetime to achieve. For Tom Birkin that serenity only took one summer month, one month in the idyllic English village of Oxgodby. The memories of that summer month, those quiet moments surrounded by nature and art, were enough to renew Birkin forever.

Tom has just returned to England after a horrific experience as a soldier in WWI. He is a broken man; a man with a facial tic caused by the trauma of war. He is returning from hell, probably suffering from what now would be called PTSD. Perhaps a commission to restore a medieval mural in a country church will help him return to civilian life and give him direction.

Birkin tells his story as he recalls these memories sixty years later. That month in Oxgodby with its kind people, warm summer days and nights, new friendships, infatuation with the vicar's wife, and a yet unknown masterpiece he is restoring, all contribute to the healing of his psyche. Unlike the people being uncovered in the mural of the apocalypse, sinners falling into hell, Tom is distancing himself from the hell of war.

What is the elixir for experiencing the atrocities of war? Happy days in Oxgodby can never be relived,
Tom tells us, but the memories sufficed. Much like Lucy Gault in William Trevor's novel, Tom realized that neither good times nor bad times last forever. Happiness is fleeting, but the contentment one once felt can be enough.

A Month in the Country is a quiet novel, not much happens but much is conveyed. It is a powerful whisper. Reading this novel enveloped me in warmth, much like I feel on the first warm day of spring. I wanted to breathe it in, feel the contentment forever. Life is good, if not right now, it will be, and the memory will always remain.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
September 14, 2018
When The Mookse and the Gripes group decided to revisit the 1980 Booker shortlist, this was the book I most looked forward to reading, and it did not disappoint, except that it was over too soon.

The narrator is Tom Birkin, who is looking back after many years to his first summer of work after returning from the Great War. He arrives in Oxgodby, a small village in Yorkshire, because a bequest to the local church has stipulated that a medieval wall painting should be uncovered and he has accepted the commission. The village is deliberately set up as a rural idyll, where he can rediscover a sense of purpose, but this is no sentimental romantic vision. There is plenty of humour, especially about the relationship and rivalry between Church and Chapel, and some wonderful period detail.

It transpires that an archaeologist, Moon, has also been commissioned by the same bequest to find the grave of an excommunicated ancestor who was said to be buried outside the church yard, and their discoveries eventually converge in a surprising way. Another subplot involves Birkin's mostly suppressed feelings for the vicar's wife.

This is a richly poignant and enjoyable novella, and an early candidate for my favourite book of the year.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,973 reviews1,983 followers
January 12, 2019
Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: In J. L. Carr's deeply charged poetic novel, Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War and a broken marriage, arrives in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby where he is to restore a recently discovered medieval mural in the local church. Living in the bell tower, surrounded by the resplendent countryside of high summer, and laboring each day to uncover an anonymous painter's depiction of the apocalypse, Birkin finds that he himself has been restored to a new, and hopeful, attachment to life. But summer ends, and with the work done, Birkin must leave. Now, long after, as he reflects on the passage of time and the power of art, he finds in his memories some consolation for all that has been lost.

My Review: A few, a precious few only, moments in life are trapped in the diamond facets of unforgettability. The moments that, in the movie we're all directing inside our heads at any given moment, define our character. In all senses of that word. Be they happy, sad, public, private, we all have them; very very few of us talk much about them; and almost no one makes art from them.

Carr made art from a crystalline moment. Cold, glittering art, fire banked in its facets, glinting at the reader from sly angles and unexpected edges. Was this akin to his own character defining moment? I certainly don't know, but I suspect so. It's the best explanation I have for small moments clearly real and recalled in fresh, bright colors and sharp, focused images.
She lived at a farmhouse gable end to the road--not a big place. Deep red hollyhocks pressed against the limestone wall and velvet butterflies flopped lazily from flower to flower. It was Tennyson weather, drowsy, warm, unnaturally still. Her father and mother made me very welcome, both declaring they'd never met a Londoner before. They gave me what, in these parts, was called a knife-and-fork "do," a ham off the hook, a deep apple pie, and scalding tea. In conversation it came out that I'd been Over There (as they called it) and this spurred them to thrust more prodigious helpings upon me.

Novelists store moments like this, personal moments, in vaults that all of us have. The difference is the vault of the artist preserves all the details and nuances. Most of us come back from the vault with tatters and shreds; Carr, and others like him, come back with precious parures that flash a dazzle upon us commoners.

The genius of this short novel, under 50,000 words, is that it doesn't tart up the glory of the images with overwrought settings. Keep it simple, make it well, and quality will out. It is a joy to find laughs and savors in the same book. It is a rare joy to find them polished to a deep flash, set at just the right moment, and not vulgarly paraded for our approval but rather simply put in their proper place and left for us to notice as we will.

I made a run at this book after reading most of a very, very unhappy and terrible book. I was weighed down, felt that page-turning was labor. After a good sleep, I picked this gem up again and began at the beginning. It was the correct decision.
We can ask and ask but we can't have again what once seemed ours for ever--the ways things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They've gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

How much poorer my world would be without the quiet luxury of these images in it.

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Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews598 followers
April 12, 2022
I’ve owned this ebook for quite a while….
[special thanks to Laysee
for her recent review, I felt inspired me to read it now]
Ha….don’t many of us have ebooks ‘waiting’ that we swear we’re going to get to?
It always feels good when I do.

Tom Birkin, a WWI veteran… having suffered the effects of war, was only doing what most soldiers would do — try to find his way back normal. Not only was he traumatized from the war, but he was recently separated from his wife.
The difficult transition from Military to civilian life — is termed PTSD today, but American soldiers in WWI were often called Doughboys with ‘war neurosis’ or ‘shell shock’.
The term PTSD onset came about in the 80’s with the Gulf War.

“A Month in the Country”, was written in 1980. It received the Guardian Fiction Prize that same year. At only 130 pages, J.L. Carr wrote this novella — taking place in the year of 1920 — about the survivor Thomas Birkin and his transitional — returning to normal — summer that he spent in a small town in the country called Oxgodby.

This story brought out a mixture of feelings for me …. I was expecting to read about a guy who was gloomy and very lonely —
But actually after the initial snottiness welcome from Vicar Keach …. who was not terribly enthusiastic about hiring Tom to restore a medieval wall mural, thinking he wasn’t a suitable person for the job….or happy that Tom would be living in the church’s bell-loft —
in other words — not getting the best welcome or given the best living situation— Tom was actually rather happy — or at least content. His inner pride and strength—trust in his own abilities to handle the daily hard work—was never a question for Tom.
His emotional health seemed to improve as the summer went on too….even a facial tick started to dwindle.

The country descriptions were lovely….
….. The sound of these forging from flower to flower….cloudless skies….butterflies….blue jays….wood-pigeons…wild plants….poppies….bilberry scrubs…and those long summer days of warm weather…..brought the feelings of youth and love.

The dialogue and developing friendships were also touching ….
Tom’s friendship with Charles Moon (another veteran hired to uncover a lost grave on the premises), was ‘guy-bonding-enduring’.
After Tom had a conversation with Alice Keach (the vicar’s wife) that Charles noticed from afar -
Charles says:
“You had the lovely Alice to see you”, Moon says when they met that evening.
“I saw her in the yard. You seemed to have a lot to say to each other. Now, didn’t you find her a bit of a stunner? Fancy that gem of purest Ray serene hidden away in Oxgodby’s unfathomable caves! Well, come on, admit it”.
“She’s a beauty all right, I said. Quite extraordinary, and fat. So maybe she doesn’t know it”.
“Rubbish! he exclaimed. Every woman knows it. But Keach catching her! It’s an outrage. Almost as big and outrage our society arranging that from the moment he got her to sign on the sanctified line and no further. It’s the devil”.
“Perhaps he’s all she wants, I said”.
“Oh come on! he said. You seen him. Worse, you’ve heard him. Let’s go out to the Shepherd and sink a jar to lost beauty”.

Another wonderful friendship Tom had was with a young town girl named Kathy Ellerback.

There is sadness ….a death …. some mystery…. art revealed…conflicted feelings….powerful memories…..but really…..
I could not say enough about this beautiful tranquil story.

Just beautiful…..emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
Profile Image for Ted.
515 reviews744 followers
July 28, 2016
This is Carr’s masterpiece, short and relatively unheralded as it is. It did win the Guardian prize, and was short-listed for the Booker; and in 1987 was made into a motion picture. This was the height of Carr’s fame and recognition. According to Michael Holroyd’s introduction to the NYRB Classics edition, this wouldn’t have affected Carr one way or the other; he was in Holroyd’s words “an outsider, a man of integrity, who wrote from his sense of privacy.”

In Carr’s forward, he tells us
my idea was to write an easy-going story, a rural idyll along the lines of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree. And … I wanted its narrator to look back regretfully across forty or fifty years but, recalling a time irrecoverably lost, still feel a tug at the heart.

Tom Birkin is a young man from the London area who has served an apprenticeship in the craft (and art) of restoring wall paintings in old churches. He has come to Yorkshire (the “North Riding”, roughly the third of Yorkshire north of York) to the small town of Oxgodby, on his first solo commission, financed via the will of a parishioner: to remove centuries of grime and whitewash from the wall high in the arch of the church. It is believed that a wall-painting lies there, and if so he is to restore it.

It is the summer of 1920. Again in his forward, Carr describes this setting as “the plow horse and candle-to-bed age”, when he himself grew up in this part of Yorkshire. Birkin is excited about the task ahead, and is an optimistic soul who tends to look on the bright side of things. But there are wounds in his background: his wife has left him, and he has been marked by his experiences in the War (Passchendaele), which have produced not only a severe facial tic but also memories which he would just as soon not have.

The story Carr tells is not complicated. What I enjoyed even more than the story itself (which is superb) is the way in which he describes the setting, the way that the setting affects Birkin, and the way in which the setting, both time and place, almost becomes the story. The rural landscape of fields, hills and woods, the slow-paced, deliberate life-style of the people, their habits and customs, even the weather, are described in beautiful prose by Carr. For example, as Tom reminisces late in the story
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 murmer of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young.
No, the story is not complicated. But neither is it shallow. There is a depth to Birkin, of course - he is a man of emotional, psychological, intellectual, and artistic interest, and is revealed to be affected deeply by both people and setting in all these facets of his nature. The supporting actors too (mostly) are not simply rural caricatures; they are more than just sketches, quickly becoming real people who demand our attention and tug at our sensibilities.

Here I’ve gone on so long, the review is nearly longer than the story – but nowhere near as good. Do yourself a favor and read this book. You might get through it in a couple hours. But please, don’t rush through it at top speed. Take pleasure in it, slow down once in awhile and let the evocative prose take hold of you. Be transported to a place, and back to a time, which few of us know first hand, but might wish we did. I do.

Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book563 followers
September 24, 2021
This is J. L. Carr’s understated, calm, peaceful novella about Tom Birkin, an art restorer, who has been hired for a summer job of restoring a five-hundred year old mural on a church wall in Oxgodby. The year is 1920, and Birkin is a World War I survivor, who has come home to a wayward wife, a life in splinters, and a nasty case of shell-shock. He is seeking something from his month in the country, but not even he knows exactly what that is.

The marvelous thing was coming into this haven of calm water and, for a season, not having to worry my head with anything but uncovering their wall-painting for them. And, afterwards, perhaps I could make a new start, forget what the War and the rows with Vinny had done to me and begin where I’d left off. This is what I need, I thought--a new start and, afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore. Well, we live by hope.

What happens in this story is just life, just living. There is nothing catastrophic, nothing exciting or dazzling, but in the midst of all this everyday life, there is the haunting sense of death in the effects the war has left on Birkin and his new friend, Moon; the ghost of the painter who left his soul imprinted on the church wall; and the lingering of “what if” that is suggested by the presence of the lovely Mrs. Keach, the vicar’s wife. This place is perhaps as unchanged as Birken and Moon are altered.

It was the way they always had lived and, like their forefathers, they travelled no further than a horse or their own legs could carry them there and back in a day.

Perhaps It is this simplicity and normality that affects Birken the most profoundly, for his life has been shredded by the war. There is also the mystery of the painting, which Birkin uncovers, and the grave that Moon seeks, to add an extra touch of interest.

Carr has written perhaps the perfect novel, for he has not wasted one word or thought, each has meaning and impact, and he has told us something important about life, about others. The book goes onto my keepers shelf at home and into my favorites folder here at GoodReads.

For what it is worth, I followed up my reading of this novel by watching the remarkable rendering of it into film. It starred a very young Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh, was superbly done, and I wondered how I had missed it in my own younger days. I feel compelled to use a worn-out cliche here, “better late than never”. Ah yes, much better.

Profile Image for Perry.
632 reviews532 followers
December 20, 2018
Happiness of Halcyon Days Haunts Me; I Wait for Pain to Pass

"Now for a breath I tarry,
Nor yet disperse apart--
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.
A.E. Housman, quoted in epigraph to A Month in the Country

An extraordinary, heart-rending novel, written as a sort of twilight benediction to a pastoral place and its people.

Never has such a short novel impacted me so profoundly, dramatically, making me reflect on a few golden days in my past, my own in which I can close my eyes and smell the dust, taste the feint salt on her upper lip, hear the voices, see faces that moments ago would have been obscured by the fog of time, feel the sun on my face, warming me in the illusion that life will surely last forever: "We can ask and ask but we can't have again what once seemed ours for ever--the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They've gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass."

The story follows Tom Birkin, who is still recovering from the trauma of his service in WW I and is running from a broken marriage, as he takes on a job to restore a medieval mural of the apocalypse in a small church in a remote Yorkshire village. He finds himself being restored by love, for the simple surroundings, the intricacy and beauty of the art and a young woman.
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 I'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 be another marvelous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies. A Month in the Country, J.L. Carr
Profile Image for Shawn Mooney (Shawn The Book Maniac).
684 reviews602 followers
January 27, 2023
In a mere 135 pages, this quiet little novel seems to say all that needs saying about war, trauma, place, community, history, art, religion, eros, friendship, memory, and difference. And in its main character Birkin's task - restoring a medieval mural hidden beneath whitewash on the wall of a village church - a meditation on meaningful labour as an act of healing and love. I'd be a fool not to read this gem of a novel again every few years for the rest of my life.
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,177 reviews540 followers
May 6, 2015
I am not going to write an elaborate review for this book. It is just one of those books that crosses one's path and changes everything inside the reader. There's soul-food in the story, positive vibes, a gentle sense of humor, and a hope being bourne from the protagonist's thoughts and heart.

When the protagonist is tasked to restore a 500-year-old painting which have been white-washed over a hundred years after it was painted, he leaves behind a shattered life in London. He survived WWI but his wife left him for another man. He had little else to lose when he left for the northern village where the church is located. While cleaning up the painting, he intensely experiences the joy and sorrows of the original artist, as though they were communicating across the centuries, even discovering how the unknown master died so many centuries ago.

His discoveries of the community, of himself, his new friends, during his month-long stay in the village, enables him to walk away and recover from his own emotional wasteland.

The protagonist is intense in everything he does, think, and experience. It is simply just a great book to read.
Profile Image for Julie G.
896 reviews2,925 followers
July 15, 2017
If the author of this book had more appropriately named this Elegy of a Broken Man rather than A Month in the Country, I think my preconceptions and attitudes would have met him in that proper space rather than taken a continuous nose dive into confusion.

I could never make out what this book wanted to be, when it grew up. It was sometimes boring and disorganized, and also sometimes inspired and filled with big, important “thinks.” I thought, quite mistakenly, that it was a summer-inspired travelogue, in the spirit of a book penned by a Frances Mayes or a Gerald Durrell, but instead it was a book about post-war trauma, dark in tone and unsure of its arc. Also, I believe that many writers who actually WROTE in the 1920s had a more modern voice and a more progressive feel than Mr. Carr did, writing this as a reflective novel, 60 years later.

In a brief, two page Foreword, the author tells the reader that he set out to write “an easy-going story, a rural idyll along the lines of Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree,” but, that “while one is writing about the past, a story is colored by what presently is happening to its writer.”

I have two comments to make about those combined quotes: first, how did I, a devoted reader of Thomas Hardy, miss the ONE easy-going story that he apparently wrote and second, why did Mr. Carr set out to write a story of healing, as his wife lay dying of lung cancer in the background?

Perhaps he just. . . needed to write about healing, maybe hoping the ideology would stick, but, while he takes the reader on Tom Birkin's post-war route to healing, he just keeps getting stuck. I felt that Tom, as a character, goes nowhere, really, and even though nature and community and art help him to lose his post-war stammer and tic, when his story ends in autumn, it looks surprisingly similar to what it looked like in spring.

There are some sad lines here, about what Tom thinks God looks like in the small town where he's working: “uncompromising. . . no, more—threatening. This is my hand. This is what you did to me. And, for this, many shall suffer the torment, for thus it was for me.”

He claims his feeling of God is one of unbelief. . . but those are not the words of an unbeliever, they are the words of a man who feels God exists, and hates him.

He adds, later, “I stumbled on, tossing in pleas to be forgiven for unmentionable sins I felt were His responsibility. . . rather than mine.”

Poor Mr. Carr. There's so much pain here, so much suffering. I can imagine he was damned angry at everyone, and you can feel it, scattered, all over the pages.

I don't want anyone reading this to think that I shy away from books that tackle difficult subjects. I don't; I often embrace them. It's just that it all felt so raw and unfocused, almost like reading someone's unedited journal, or the work of a much younger writer.

And, I have already admitted to going into this read with a bias, which is always a bad idea.

It's not an accident that Mr. Carr references both Hardy and Housman, he was a fan and a teacher of both. Me, too.

But, even though I think he had a great idea, to tell a Hardy-inspired story where an “art restorer” is actually restored by art, I don't really think it happens here.
Profile Image for Algernon (Darth Anyan).
1,527 reviews979 followers
March 11, 2019

According to Dr. Johnson's 'Dictionary , a novel is a small tale, generally of love.

Mr. Carr is modest in choosing this quote as epigraph for his novel. There nothing small about this story, despite the relatively thin size of the tome. I have noticed before, that a lot of my favorite novels do not need a thousand pages, or world shattering conflicts to get to the point. "A Month In the Country" is just further confirmation of my theory that in art size doesn't matter. What matters is the richness of the inner/emotional landscape and the basic honesty of the discourse. An understated message, a line of verse, is often more powerful, more memorable than those already mentioned thousand words. ('By starlight and by candlelight and dreamlight, she comes to me.')

Even before I read the first line of the novel, I was enchanted with his chosen epigraphs. The second one is the famous A E Housman line that Roger Zelazny used to describe a post-apocalyptic world ("For a Breath I Tarry") . Tom Birkin, the narrator of the story, is himself the survivor of an apocalypse: the slaughter of the First World War in the trenches of France. Tom has returned to England with both visible and invisible scars. He takes a summer job in a small village in Yorkshire. As a highly skilled restaurateur hired to uncover an ancient mural in the local church, Tom hopes that by immersing himself in the work that he loves, he can heal the wounds left by the war and by a failed marriage.

And then, God help me, on my first morning, in the first few minutes of my first morning, I felt that this alien northern countryside was friendly, that I'd turned a corner and that this summer of 1920, which was to smoulder on until the first leaves fell, was to be a propitious season of living, a blessed time.

The theme of healing through a retreat into nature, through religion, through human contact and friendship, through art and beauty is what makes the present novel timeless, universal. Tom Birkin goes through all of these redeeming experiences: he meets another wounded soldier working in a nearby field, he meets youth in a young school kid who skips class to watch him work in the church, he meets physical beauty in the presence of a married lady that also shows him kindness; he meets friendly, accepting villagers who talk in a funny accent but are genuinely interested in his life and work. Most of all, Tom identifies with the unknown painter who put his whole life into a mural of God judging Saints and Sinners many centuries before.

This is what I need, I thought – a new start and, afterwards, maybe I won't be a casualty anymore.
Well, we live by hope.

I would recommend "A Month in the Country" to anyone who has experienced depression, disillusion, loss, pain, uncertainty. It doesn't really matter if you believed in the same god as Mr. Carr (the son of a famous preacher), or in Mr. Freud or in any other modern '-ism' . We are all human, and we have the same needs to give our lives a sense of purpose, a reason to keep trying day after day, no matter how many times we fail. What we are experiencing now, stress in all its fanciful disguises and new medical definitions, is something every generation has gone through since time immemorial. Mr. Carr argues that the past, if you look at its art carefully, can give us precious tools to deal with pain and loneliness and despair.

Here I was, face to face with a nameless painter reaching from the dark to show me what he could do, saying to me as clear as any words, 'If any part of me survives from time's corruption, let it be this. For this was the sort of man I was.'

I tried to make the point that the healing journey of Tom Birkin is universal, timeless, that it applies to all of us. It's important though to note that the process is neither simplistic, nor easily defined. Most of all, it is unique to each of us, depending on our temperament, sensibilities, baggage of past experiences. Most of all it is a journey from the outside in, from the harsh realities of an adverse society to the discovery of our own compass or inner strength.

But oddly, what happened 'outside' was like a dream. It was inside the still church, before its reappearing picture, that was 'real'. I drifted across the rest. As I have said – like a dream. For a time.

That 1920 summer in the village of Oxgodby is remembered many decades later by Tom as a season of uncharacteristic warmth and brightness, more luminous than ever because of the contrast with the Hell he has experienced before it, a moment of 'splendor in the grass' that would last him a lifetime. The story of the little church in Oxgodby is his gift to us, the way he wants to be remembered as a man and an artist.

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 I'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 be another marvelous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.

Profile Image for Laysee.
519 reviews250 followers
October 15, 2017
Summer 1920. Tom Birkin, a penurious Londoner in his early twenties, battered by war and a failed marriage, sought a fresh start for himself in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby. He was excited by the prospect of uncovering and restoring a recently discovered medieval wall-painting in the village church. At less than 120 pages, A Month In The Country is a beautiful novella of restoration and healing.

I was enchanted by the opening pages that showed Birkin arriving on a rainy evening, grudgingly received by the vicar, and bedding down in the bell-chamber of the church. From the window, he beheld "the hills heaving like the back of some great sea-creature, dark woods washing down its sides into the Vale." There was an atmospheric beauty to the writing and humor in Birkin's observations of what was to be his home for a month in the country. On his first morning in Oxgodby, Birkin told himself, "I was going to be happy, live simply…" Of his first real job, he declared, "I willed it to be something good, really splendid, truly astonishing." His quiet optimism won me over.

In this rural idyll that came close to a latter day Eden, Birkin was soon inducted into the social and religious life of the village. It was lovely to read of new friendship ties forged with the Ellerbeck family, Alice Keach (the vicar’s wife), and Charles Moon (an outsider like Birkin himself on a different mission of uncovering a buried past). The hospitality of the village folks, Birkin's reluctant involvement in church life, often recounted with hilarity, made for delightful reading.

Birkin's past was not delved into at any great length but just enough to shed light on his present quest for change. The story focused on the moments of discovery Birkin made that summer through the veil of sadness. He was "surprised by joy" but not in a religious sense. It was a restorative encounter conferred both by the calm haven found in nature and a wholly absorbing vocation.

What truly delighted me was sharing Birkin’s excitement as the lime wash was slowly stripped off the wall mural to reveal the masterpiece that had been shrouded in secrecy for some 400 years. Birkin recalled, "And there I was, on that memorable day, knowing I had a masterpiece on my hands but scarcely prepared to admit it, like a greedy child hoards the best chocolates in the box." It was breathtaking. There was something magical too in Birkin’s mystic sweet communion with the unknown artist.

Read A Month In The Country by J. L. Carl. It is poignantly written and a veritable treat. When it ended, I felt "a tugging at the heart" and sat silently for a long while.
Profile Image for Jr Bacdayan.
211 reviews1,740 followers
March 13, 2019
Life is filled with moments. Moments of cowardice, of hesitation, moments when our courage fail us: to make a small step, to take a big leap, to dance, or move our lips a few inches to those of another. Repetitive moments of daily toil: eating, fixing the bed, performing our trade, defecating. Moments of idleness when we do nothing but lie down and embody the emptiness within us. These moments are not remembered, are forgotten, or glossed over with untruth. These moments fill out what is left after the highlights of our lives have been told. And so there they remain, dull threads in our chaotic tapestry of life, until such a time when we are compelled to revisit.

The process of recalling the minute moments of ones life is an arduous labor. It is no different from digging for coffins in a cemetery or akin to uncovering a hidden fresco on an old church wall. You go back through time, open the locks of recollection, and are rewarded with a decaying piece of memory. Often there are no details left but a vague feeling of association to a place, a sensation, or an emotion.

This small novel is about those forgotten moments, the moments that fade into nameless places we have passed by, sensations that have coursed through us, and emotions that we still feel.

A month in the country tells of the insignificant piece of time in Tom Birkin’s life when he passed by the provincial town of Oxgodby. Birkin recalls the weeks he spent uncovering an ancient fresco in the village church and the moments in between filled with irrelevant details and inconsequential episodes. The novel is compact, simple, and yet filled with wisdom. As a human, an artist of sorts, an estranged husband, and war veteran, we see Birkin’s hardened attitude towards his life and the hopeful contentment he feels towards his future. There is much to ponder on.

“All this happened so long ago. And I never returned, never wrote, never met anyone who might have given me news of Oxgodby. So, in memory, it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long dry on a put-down pen.”
Profile Image for Marc.
3,109 reviews1,175 followers
December 5, 2022
“Now you don't see; indeed, there is nothing to see. Now look!”
Four stars for a novel of barely 100 pages? I know, I may be overly sentimental because of the dark december days, but this deceptively simple little story really touched me. Deceptive, indeed, because Carr cleverly sucks you into the story, adding a new layer about every 5 pages.

It starts like a penny dreadful, with the arrival - by train - of the young Tom Birkin in Oxgodby (a suggestive name left open to interpretation), an unsightly northern English village. He has to uncover a medieval fresco in a church and restore it. We are 1920, and Tom turns out to be another traumatized victim from the trenches in the First World War, wounded at Passchendaele. We then become acquainted with the paradisical life in the village, in full summer, and the story takes on the allure of a rural idyll. But with each subsequent conversation and each scene, new angles emerge, up to and including a very classic just-not-romance. Humor and melancholy alternate, until together with Tom we leave Oxgodby with a heavy heart.

What a cool novel, actually almost perfect. And what a masterful performance of Carr, especially because of the parallel between Tom's meticulous work, exposing layer upon layer of the masterpiece in the church, and his slow discovery of what is valuable in his life, also exposed layer upon layer. I just can't begin to enumerate what themes the author is touching upon. All set in a most melodic English. And on a closer look, Carr also plays a masterful game of opposites, especially that between inside and outside, in every way possible. As my citation above says, when reading this novella: first you don’t see, it looks like there’s nothing to see, and then suddenly you do. What a treat!
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