A retreat into the Yorkshire countryside

January 30, 2011

Wouldn’t that be nice. A summer month to work in a remote location, hitting the pause button to get away from Blackberries and iPhones, Twitter and Facebook, e-mail and those demanding calendar pop-up reminders (dismiss!). Of course, that’s my fantasy, not the story of  Tom Birkin in J. L. Carr’s classic novel A Month in the Country published in 1980. A Time Out New York review claimed it to be “one of those perfect, precious novels that you want to loan to friends, buy all your relatives for Christmas and give to your latest paramour.” Birkin is a traumatized World War I vet who arrives in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby the summer of 1920 to restore a medieval mural in the local church. As he restores the lime-washed painting, he restores himself.

Each day, Birkin steadily works to reveal the anonymous artist’s depiction of Judgment, while beyond the church windows the green summer fields surround him with nature’s peacefulness. He becomes friends with several villagers, especially Charles Moon, another war veteran who’s digging in a nearby field to locate the grave of a villager’s ancestor. Birkin finds solace in their friendship, which you can see beginning here in this clip from the 1987 movie starring a young Colin Firth as Birkin and Kenneth Branagh as Moon.

The power of this classic lies in its beautiful, unadorned prose and the simplicity with which it demonstrates Birkin’s transformation through the Oxgodby people and his work. We become immersed in the feeling of gradual, enlightening renewal that Birkin experiences within the precious commodity of slow time.  Looking back over this idyllic summer in his life, he says, “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.” 

J. L. Carr (1912 – 1994) knew how to write about the granting of peace to a human being. This is a quiet, redemptive novel and an enchanting story.

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