A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A pastoral…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Tom Birkin is still suffering the after-effects of shell-shock as a result of his experiences at Passchendaele. His personal life also in disarray, he gladly accepts a commission that will take him out of London for the summer, to the village of Oxgodsby in Yorkshire, where a recently deceased parishioner has left a bequest to the local church, contingent on the uncovering of a wall painting she believed was concealed beneath centuries of whitewashing. The same parishioner has also requested that a search be made for the burial site of a long dead ancestor, excommunicated and therefore denied burial in the churchyard. Archaeologist Charles Moon, another survivor of the war, will become Birkin’s first friend as they both immerse themselves in the past and present of the village.

A pastoral, this is a beautifully written novella full of descriptions of the countryside at the last point of the horse age, before farming became an industry like any other. Birkin is badly damaged by his wartime experiences, not physically, but mentally, and he will find a kind of healing as the long summer passes and he reconnects with the long-distant past as he slowly reveals the work of the artist who, in medieval times, painted the Last Judgement on the wall of the church.

As he works, he also comes to know some of the villagers. The Ellerbecks take him under their wing, with Mrs Ellerbeck making sure he is well fed and the young daughter of the family, Kathy, keeping him organised and ordering him around, showing herself already a mini version of the backbone of community life she will undoubtedly grow up to be. Mr Ellerbeck preaches at the Wesleyan chapel, and out of a sense of gratitude for their hospitality, Birkin becomes involved in the chapel community although he is a non-believer, perhaps because of the scenes of horror he witnessed in the war.

JL Carr

Rev. J.G. Keach, the minister of the church in which Birkin is working, feels the uncovering of the wall painting is a nuisance – a waste of time and money, tolerated solely to satisfy the requirements of his late parishioner’s will. His wife is young and beautiful, and Birkin gradually comes to fall in love with her, but in a romantic rather than a passionate sense, almost as an obligatory part of a summer idyll.

I enjoyed this, especially the writing and the slow uncovering of the wall painting, and all the seemingly knowledgeable information Carr provides about medieval church art. However, I found it rather slight overall, like a pretty piece of pastoral music, pleasant but not soul-stirring. It is written from Birkin’s perspective, looking back as an old man to a golden summer of his youth, an interlude between the horrors of war and the resumption of his real life; a brief period of suspended time given to him to heal his mind and perhaps his soul. And for the reader, it also provides a pleasurable escape for an hour or two, to a simpler time when the sun always shone and people were intrinsically good. Did that time ever exist? Perhaps it only seems that way when enough years have passed for harsh reality to have been hidden beneath several layers of whitewash.

Book 20 of 20

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56 thoughts on “A Month in the Country by JL Carr

  1. It looks like our experiences with this were quite similar. It was somewhere around the 3Half or 4 Star read for me too, it contained many beautiful things in isolation, but as a whole, I didn’t love it quite as much as I was expecting to. I have a feeling it is one of these novels/novellas which people will read for the reading experience, rather than for the story, which I found a little insubstancial. It’s principle charm is in the notion of a man attempting to restore himself somewhat, and to enjoy simple pleasures, but like the painting he restored, he can never be quite the same after his previous experiences. It was clear that Birkin enjoyed having some kind of role to play, but its temperary nature was equally clear, and I think the over all message of the story was about appreciating pleasant things when they happen and living in the moment, as life is too pricarious to make perminant plans.
    As for the story itself, I was struck by the growing afinity between Birkin and the artist who’s painting he was recovering, and in a way, this artist seemed more real to him than the people within the community, however kind and welcoming they were to him. As for the connection between the artist and the lost grave, I guessed that more or less immediately, so there wasn’t much of a surprise. I also didn’t really buy the potential romance between Birkin and Alice, or to be more accurate, I believed he felt something for her, but I wasn’t sure about the extent to which he saw her as a real person. She seemed like part of a dream or fantasy about the kind of life he might have wished to have, but in the end, he had to return to reality. Ultimately, this was a rather somber novel despite Birkin’s assertions he was happy at the time, and it is the tone and mood which will linger in my mind rather than the story or characters.
    Thanks for hosting another review-along, I’m glad to have read this, despite the fact it hasn’t turned into one of my favorites. I look forward to our next one, and to finding out how others got on with this.

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    • I’m glad your opinion is similar to mine – my reading enthusiasm has been so temperamental recently I’m never sure if I’m being too hard on books that I’d usually love. I felt he touched on lots of things but didn’t really go deeply enough into them, although obviously if he had that would have made it a different kind of book. But I couldn’t quite see why he brought in the sick girl or the homosexuality question if he wasn’t going to say much about them. Maybe just to show that his summer idyll wasn’t a paradise?
      I too guessed at the link between the excommunicated man and the picture quite early on, and honestly thought it was a bit contrived and unnecessary. I loved all the stuff about the various colours the artist had used though – the different value of them and how they would have aged. I liked the idea that the original artist would have had no thought of his picture lasting more than a couple of generations – I often wonder if artists write or paint for the moment or with one eye on posterity.
      As for the romance, I didn’t feel that even Birkin himself really believed in it, and I found all the Vinny stuff a little strange and not quite in keeping with the rest of the book. Maybe it gave it a bit of edginess though. Haha, I did think I was going to get through a whole book by a modern male author without him once referring to the love interest’s breasts, but I was destined to have my hopes dashed at the last moment… 😉
      Unfortunately my review ended up being very rushed since I only finished the book yesterday – next review-along I shall plan better! Tender is the Night – I’ll put out a reminder for people in a few weeks. Thanks for your reading company!

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      • Interesting 😊 I liked those glancing references to the sick girl, homosexuality and more. As you say, had he gone into them more deeply it would have been a different book. There’s a quote from Carr at the end of my post in which he suggests that he set out to write a pastoral – a rural idyll akin to Hardy. Without the darker references, the book would have been too schmaltzy even for me! The essential purpose to the tale for me, was to reflect on a golden moment in the narrator’s life but without suggesting that life was one long sunday school picnic. I too, loved reading about the painting techniques etc but unlike you and Alyson, I didn’t guess the connection. The only part of the Vinny story which frustrated me was her wanting to come back and he allowing it. But perhaps that’s more realistic than him striding off alone. As for the Keaches – they seemed the weakest part, frankly. Mismatched and with insufficent past or future. Like you, I read and then wrote at the last minute. Only now, reading everyone’s comments, am I starting to get a full sense of my responses to this one. Perhaps it explains why I wasn’t able to give those 5 stars. But criticisms notwithstanding, I still love it!

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        • I can see the Hardy connection, but although I haven’t read a lot of Hardy, the little I have read generally doesn’t show the countryside as idyllic – quite the reverse, with the onset of machinery and the displacement of farm workers. Of course, Birkin wasn’t really involved in the farming life of the village so maybe he just had rose-coloured specs on when he looked at the prettiness, and I’m expecting too much of him to have seen the poverty and social disruption that was ravaging England at that period. I think basically I’m just too much of a cynic, and way too politically-minded! I’d have liked to know more about the Rev Keach too – why he was as he was, and I agree they seemed totally mismatched. But all that said, I enjoyed it far more than it sounds as if I did – it’s not a favourite but it’s a pleasant read.

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  2. I read this book some years ago when every other blog review was extolling its virtues & there were long waiting lists for it at the library. However, your current review is the only one that matches the feeling I had on finishing the book. For me there was definitely something substantial missing that would have made all the elements of the landscape, historic events & characters within in it all truly memorable & enriching the reading experience.

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    • I think books sometimes take on a kind of momentum and reading lots of enthusiastic reviews can sway my opinion either for it or against it. With this one, I’d read so many glowing reviews that I found I kept waiting to be blown away and it didn’t really happen – maybe if my expectations had been lower I’d have loved it more? I guess I’ll never know! I found he touched on a lot of things that could have given it more bite, but then he didn’t seem to delve into them. However it was a pleasant interlude and I’d quit like to try another of his books if they’re available.

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  3. I do really need to read this, especially as I’m having trouble with anything too heavy (I’m looking at you, book I badgered the publisher for because I thought it was just about horses but it’s actually about the Holocaust, too …)

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    • I almost never read books about the Holocaust these days – I’m not sure there’s much new left to be said. But I do find I need a bit of depth and bite at the moment to really take my mind off the real world, and I suspect that may have affected my view of this – it was a bit too insubstantial for my mood. It is beautifully written, though.

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  4. I absolutely adored this, so it would get the extra star from me. Glad you enjoyed it though FF. Will you be doing one of your film of the book posts on this? If you don’t know it I think you’ll approve of the casting 😉

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    • Ha, I did see that my Darcy had appeared in it! I must see if I can track it down – from the little I’ve read about it, it seems as if they adapted it well. I seem to have lost the habit of doing film of the book posts recently…

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  5. I know what you mean about soul-stirring and perhaps, lack of depth in this one, FictionFan. Even in a novella, you can add in lots of layers of plot, characters, etc. Still, for these times, when everything in real life is upended for a lot of reasons, it’s very appealing to go for pastoral and pleasant. I suppose it’s about what a reader is looking for at any given time? I’m glad you found things to like, and the writing style is appealing…

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    • Yes, I felt he touched on quite a lot of darker themes but then didn’t delve into them, which left it feeling a bit insubstantial to me. But beautifully written and evocative of a time and place, though I felt it was all a bit too sunshiny (it is Yorkshire after all, not California! 😉 ) But a very pleasurable interlude, and the right length to not outstay its welcome.

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  6. When you mentioned that this was a pastoral, I couldn’t help thinking of Beethoven’s sixth symphony and instantly had a sense of calm enjoyment. It sounds like your experience with this book.

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    • Ha! It was reminding me of Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony, which manages to be both beautiful and soul-stirring! This was lovely though, and perfect for taking us out of the real world for a bit…

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    • It is beautifully written and a great way to escape for a while from the horrors of real life. But maybe it’s because real life is so brutal at the moment that this felt a bit too idyllic to be true? My cynicism is definitely in overdrive these days… 😉

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  7. It’s always a pleasure, always worthwhile reading alongside you, FF, and indeed alongside Alyson, whose thoughts seem to mirror yours 😊. We are not so far apart: I am aware that on my Goodreads list I didn’t give this 5 stars. (I’d have liked to give 4.5 and marked down rather than up.) The Go-Between got a clear 5 stars as I recall. Yet it’s Carr’s book I will return to. Maybe this confirms that essentially I’m a lightweight (when it comes to reading at least 😉 ) I felt there were a number of themes presented: war, forbidden love, missed opportunities, community, homosexuality, duty, what’s acceptable in a courageous soldier, TB, religion … it wasn’t all lightweight, merely presented as such. Darkness in a bucolic wrapper perhaps. I sensed your cynicism at the end of your review – and perhaps exhaustion after triumphing on the Books of Summer challenge 😂 Very well done on that! I am saying nothing regarding my own efforts…. 🤫

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    • Haha, yes, I swithered about leaving my last cynical sentence in, but I did feel that the village people, although lovely, were perhaps just a little too good to be true. In an Agatha Christie village of the same era, four people at least would have been bumped off by an elderly colonel. This felt rather Wodehouse-ish, not in the humour or farcical sense, but in the too perfect to be quite a real place sense, and too much sunshine – it’s Yorkshire, for goodness sake! You soft Southerners are probably used to that kind of weather but us hardy Northerners don’t feel the day has begun till the first rains are past. 😉
      He certainly does touch on some dark themes, but I’d have preferred him to delve into them more deeply – although as always I feel a bit bad about criticising an author for writing the book he wanted to write rather than the book I want to read.
      Sadly you’re right about the rushing at the end of the 20 Books – I only finished reading it yesterday and had to bash out a quick review straight away, so didn’t do it justice, I fear. I’m even more glad therefore that you did – despite my reservations, it’s a lovely book and fully deserves the lovely review you gave it. 😀 Here’s to the next review-along – which I shall read earlier next time!

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      • Wodehouse-ish! 😱 😂 It just so happens that I’ve just finished My Man Jeeves. First Wodehouse I’ve read and I loved it! What a hoot, and yes, a great escape from life right now. But I’m struggling to pop Bertie and Birkin into the same category 😂 Reading your various comments though, FF, it’s pretty clear that we each turn in opposite directions for our current escape fix: you to depth and bite – which I seem to be avoiding at the moment, and me to the rural past – I’ve read several stunning books based around the early years of the last century recently. Tender is the Night is going to be very different. Long and bleak I fear! I’m already set not to like it! 😉 😂

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        • Haha, yes, but don’t you think it would have been fun if Gussie Fink-Nottle had turned up in Oxgodsby? 😉 So glad to hear of a new convert to Wodehouse! He’s who I turn to when I need a bit of summer idyll, with added humour. And really it’s either very light stuff like Wodehouse or real heavyweight stuff – like my current read of Churchill’s history of the war – that takes my mind off things. Middleweight reads never absorb me in the same way, and probably bring out my critical side most. Haha, I’m not sure about Tender is the Night either – whining white privilege, I fear! 😉 But maybe we’ll both be pleasantly surprised…

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          • I am a total convery to Wodehouse and agree his is the perfect antidote when life is just too much. I’m glad you’re looking on the positive side re TisN. I’m feeling quite pessimistic myself! I’ll cheer myself up by pondering the possibilities had the saintly Alice Keach had been replaced by Gussie …. 😱

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    • Mood reading is so important – I suspect at a different time I might have loved this more, but I had a hard job buying into the idea of this kind of idyll when the whole world seems to be so horrible right now! So I quite understand the appeal of murders and mayhem – I’m back to reading a mystery novel myself now! 😀

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  8. I loved this book and I think I benefited from going into it completely blind so that it felt fresh and surprising to me. I liked how it was both a very peaceful read but there was a lot left unsaid that was right there below the idyllic surface too.

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  9. Sorry, I’m late, I’ve been thoroughly distracted by some voluntary commitments.
    I did enjoy the quiet read of A Month in the Country. When a book is well written, with evocative settings, and quiet rhythms of life, I can often readily settle into those rhythms, and I did this with A Month. I liked the glimpses of times past, and the descriptions of the country, village life and village characters. I thought that the sense of a gentle time-out from ‘real’ life for Tom and Charles was given an edge by the war time experiences they had been through and the scars left. The slow pace of life and unfolding wall painting and its story allowed both men to come back into their own skins after trauma. For me, the abrupt and unresolved circumstances at the story’s end are part of the framing of the story of “then”; the story starts with an awkward entry into the country and ends with a final departure not bridged by transition. ‘The country’ exists in its own terms and although it was idyllic, it was not a place to remain in: “it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long dry on a put-down pen”. A very satisfying story for me.

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  10. I do understand your point of view that the pastoral tone felt lacking in substance, too much softness, not enough bite. For me, it’s a question of whether I’m prepared to ‘go along for the ride’ or not, and on this occasion I could. I don’t think I felt the need (this time) to hold up a story filtered through the years of memory, to the colder realities of a present time, but I understand how you (and other readers) could do this with this story. I’m pleased it did bring some pleasures for you!

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed it so much and I certainly think you’re in the majority. Not that I didn’t enjoy it – I did, but much in the same way as I enjoy Wodehouse’s countryside or even Agatha Christie’s – I don’t see any of them as quite “real”, more idealised – like Hobbiton, in fact, with happy rosy-cheeked villagers playing cricket and dancing round the maypole. Lovely, and I do wish such places existed. I take your point though that this is in fact filtered through his memory and so that could account for the idealisation, and I’m probably being too cynical. But I found it all too easy, somehow – the serious issues he touched on, like young people dying or attitudes to homosexuality, were simply glossed over, leaving me to wonder why he bothered to mention them at all.
      However, I won’t criticise any more, since I don’t want my negativity to take away from anyone else’s enjoyment of it – Lord knows we could all do with a little escape from reality right now! It’s been fun again reading everyone’s differing reactions to it, and wouldn’t life be so much duller if we all felt the same about everything?! Looking forward to Tender is the Night, and this time I’ll ensure I leave myself more time to write the review!

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  11. I’ve added this book to my reading list, as it seems as if the rest of the world have read it and loved it. Perhaps it resonates particularly with English people? I’m not worried about you having found it to be slightly insubstantial, as I suspect that means I will like it better than you did!

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    • You may be right – the idealised village is very much an English thing, I think. But I have a feeling it maybe resonates more with city dwellers too, who like to think of the country in romantic terms. Haha, no, you should ignore my opinion completely, especially since I’m in a tiny minority… what’s new? 😉 I did enjoy it though, and I think you will too. 😀

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      • Australians are the same. We are nostalgic for an idealised past in the bush, but the majority of Australians since 1788 have lived in cities and towns.
        I enjoyed your and Sandra’s reviews and am thinking of looking out for this during summer.

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  12. This sounds like a lovely book for the right mood – it sounds like a book that I want to get hold of but leave until I really fancy it, though, as I think if I read it now the insubstantial stuff might bother me. I always think of books like these as James Herriott books – I love his memoirs but I’m pretty sure the Yorkshire in them never truly existed. Doesn’t matter, though, as I love visiting it anyway.

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    • Yes, I think that sounds like an excellent comparison. I haven’t read Herriot but watched the old TV adaptations, and there is the same sense of slight unreality. I just found myself comparing it to Hobbiton, which sounds kinda cruel but it does feel like the kind of village we all wish existed, rather than the ones that actually do. However, I found it a very pleasant place to spend a few hours, so I hope you do too. 😀

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  13. I can see why you’d call this book ‘slight’, as i’ve read these books before too. Nice at the time, not too memorable, and fleeting. Still, there’s a definite need for books like this, just as there was back then.

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    • Yes, it’s always pleasant to escape for a while from grim reality, and this is a lovely one to do that with. He does touch on some serious issues, but for me he dealt with them too lightly – however, I’m in a tiny minority as usual, so you should definitely ignore me! 😉

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  14. I’m glad you liked this because I loved it, but like you I do think Carr is asking did this time ever really exist, or is it just with hindsight – I think you put it more eloquently than I did though!

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