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A Month in the Country by J L Carr - Review

Sunday, August 20, 2023

When I was in Leeds at the beginning of July I was looking at a table in Waterstones which had a bunch of small novella books on it. I picked up quite a few but couldn't really afford any. One of the books on the table was Heatwave by Victor Jestin, which I read and enjoyed earlier in the year. So I turned to the library, of course, and requested three. They all arrived together so I picked up A Month in the Country first. It clearly hasn't been checked out of the library in forever; it had been in stacks stored somewhere. The first few pages had fallen out and been sellotaped back in. I love this! I love the history of a book and I like the fact that I gave it an airing for the first time in nearly two decades! This also has to be one of the oldest books I've read this year; it was published in 1980. 

The book is set in 1920. Tom Birkin is an art restorer, hired to uncover a mural in an Anglican church in North Yorkshire (somewhere near Ripon). The money to do so has been left by a local woman. Tom's skills are in decline in both availability and demand and he knows it; he was trained by someone else who has just given up. He will be paid twenty five guineas and expects the work to last around a month. 

Tom has served in the trenches in World War One (including fighting at Passchendaele) and has been left with PTSD from the experience, and a nervous tic in his left cheek. He has been married but she hast left him and he has drifted into this line of work. He arrives one day at the local station and makes his way to the church. 

At the church he meets the Revd Keach, who is hard to get to know as a character. Perhaps that's just the divide that exists between Tom and a reverend, in terms of their class, age, and life experiences. Perhaps it's the fact that Keach is uncomfortable with Tom's disability (he always looks over Tom's left shoulder). Tom is to sleep in the belfry, where he will only be disturbed by Mossop, the verger. He meets Moon, who has also served in the trenches, and who has been hired to search for a grave just outside of the churchyard walls, the money also left by the same woman. Tom and Moon stirke up a friendship, sharing their meagre food and having some deep conversations. 

The Revd's wife, Alice, visits Tom. He has a crush on her; she's much younger than the reverend and very pretty, and has a lovely laugh. She doesn't appear to want much from him, though. He visits the huge vicarage nearby at one point. He is also visited in his work by Kathy, the station master's daughter. She is only a teenager. She invites him for tea and then he is invited to chapel, where the station master is a travelling minister. Tom gets quite involved with the life of the chapel in his month in the village. I really liked the depiction of the difference between the (Anglican) church and the (Wesleyan/Methodist) chapel. I grew up in a community like that myself so could really understand it. 

Tom is a likeable character; he sometimes comes off a little passive, but I did like him. He has no religious leanings himself but he does like the work of uncovering the mural and wondering about the painter - something which becomes clear at the end and which serves as a really satisfying end to the book. I really liked it and am giving it four out of five. 

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