Review of sorts: A Month in the Country

I’m currently staying with my friend the Mead, in the final few weeks before her family raises their tentpoles to head south and east.  This time lends itself to a bit of reflection on the times one’s had, the times one might have had, and what all might be lying ahead – both generally speaking, and where one’s bookshelf is concerned.

Our conversation, amid two years’ worth of catching-up, jumped from what we’ve read and enjoyed, to what waits on the TBR list, to books that were pretentious or unnecessarily depressing, to promising new possibilities.  My friend recommended a few titles to me, including this one by JL Carr.

I didn’t read the blurb on the back and had to unfold for myself that the narrator, Tom Birkin, back in England after fighting in World War I, has been hired by a church in Yorkshire to painstakingly uncover a medieval mural that had been whitewashed over some five centuries back.  His benefactress had also, by way of putting it in her will, hired a fellow to come make a diligent effort to search for her ancestor’s remains; according to records, said ancestor had been excommunicated and thus buried outside the churchyard.  

So Birkin spends the summer at work, on a scaffold amid limestone ashlar, hassocks, balusters, and an inscribed catafalque.

Telling you anything further about the plot feels like a sort of betrayal – not because I am afraid of spoiling the story for you, per se, but because the story is so much more than the sum of those discrete events.

There’s a few lines running throughout which could be pulled taut, to become lines of tension or of humor: a Londoner amid northern folk, Anglican Church versus nonconformist Chapel (and their different approaches to purchasing organs), Birkin’s financial straits, and changing relationships (friendship or romantic alike).

Birkin understands the significance and meaning of this sacred mural, even if the battles of Ypres and ensuing shell-shock have driven out his own belief in God, and looks on the painted figures doomed to hell with a bit more sympathy than the less-compelling righteous heading for heaven.

The period of clearing centuries of grime off a painting (and what a painting, what costly materials were used, what a master composed it!) provides some rest as he is engaged in his work, smooths out the twitch and stammer he was left by the war, and reminds him of the possibility of love in this northern community.

And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart—knowing a precious moment had gone and we not there. 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 belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

It’s a quiet little book, threaded with the melancholy of autumn’s backward glance.

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