10 February 2011

Book Review: A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

   
Tom Birkin, a Londoner, and a somewhat shell-shocked veteran of World War I arrives in Yorkshire to uncover a suspected wall painting in the village church. Written as a memoir, Birkin's story is equal parts country idyll, love story, and ethnographic sketch. Over only 135 pages, Carr's poetic writing conjures up so many moving, beautiful, and humorous images, I feel very clumsy writing about it.

Through Birkin's experience we meet the people of Oxgodby and are introduced to their various quirks and natural distrust of a city boy from the South. We learn the value of vocation and art for their own sake. And we see Birkin slip almost imperceptibly into the life of the village. He takes up Methodism despite working and literally living in an Anglican church, becomes close friends with Charles Moon a fellow WWI vet who has been hired to unearth the grave of the ancestor of an important local family, becomes an honorary member of the Ellerbeck family, and falls in love with the vicar's wife.

Passages like this transported me to Birkin's bucolic time in Oxgodby:
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 from the Plain.
And there are many scenes that beautifully describe connections to the past.
...their mother worked out how it was with me and usually sent a bit of whatever was being manufactured in her kitchen--rabbit pie, a couple of currant teacakes, two or three curd tarts. So, over the weeks, a splendid repertory of North Riding dishes was performed amanti bravura to an applauding Londoner, dishes Mrs. Ellerbeck had helped her mother bake, who had helped her mother bake who...Sometimes I'd share this bounty with Moon and it was he who suggested that we were eating disposable archaeology.
Similarly, both Birkin, in the course of his work restoring the painting, and Moon in his archaeological digging, contemplate the creators of the work they are unearthing. Here is Moon asking Birkin about the unknown artist:
"How are you two getting on together?" Moon would say, waving a hand at my wall. "Do you ever feel him breathing down your neck, nudging you--'Good lad, Birkin! Attaboy!' You must know him pretty well. Go on--tell me about him. who was he?"
Birkin contemplates how alien the idea of fame would have been to this unknown master.
And the idea that his work might be minutely observed five hundred years after his death would have been preposterous. In his day, buildings were being drastically remodeled every fifty years as fashions changed, so that my man would calculate his painting, at the longest would last no more than a couple of generations.
Not only would this unknown artist never have contemplated the immortal nature of his work, he certainly wouldn't have supposed that Birkin, five hundred years later could intelligently deduce that in addition to being right handed, likely a monk, and didn't trust his apprentice, the artist
...was fair-headed; hairs kept turning up where his beard had prodded into tacky paint, particularly the outlining in red ochre which he'd based in linseed oil. There was no mistaking it for brush hair which was recognizable from its length, an inch, never more than an inch and half. Sow's bristle for the rough jobs, badger's gray for precision.
He also surmises something about the unknown artist's end. But I don't want to give too much away. What has just occurred to me as I write this is that Birkin's restoration work, his contribution to history, as well as his connection with Oxgodby becomes similarly anonymous as it was for the original artist. It is enough for Birkin to have played his part in a continuum of human endeavor as well as to have had, at least for one summer, received so much from his time in Oxgodby.

This review is a little over wrought and under thunk. I warned you that was going to be tough to write about this little gem. I think it is a beautiful book and it gives me deep comfort about my place in the cosmos.

13 comments:

  1. I'm glad this has made it into the NYRB imprint - I LOVED it so much. Has anyone else read anything by Carr and was it as good?

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  2. This is on my tbr to read this year sometime. Lovely review, from what I've heard of this book I can imagine how it would be difficult to capture its impact.

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  3. I've found with the NYBR titles, that I can either take them or leave them - this one sounds like a "taker." Thanks for the review.

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  4. OK--definitely on my list. Lovely review, Thomas.

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  5. Thank you for reminding me how much I loved this book Thomas. I also remember really enjoying the movie. I looked it up and it was released in 1987 with Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, Natasha Richardson, Patrick Malahide and Jim Carter. What's not to like with that ensemble. I didn't realise it had such a stellar cast until I looked it up to respond to this post. According to Wikipedia the print was lost/ mislaid for many years and has only recently been refound and re-released. It is certainly worth a look and if my memory serves me correctly captured the mood of the beautiful J.L. Carr book; a long time favourite of mine.

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  6. Verity: And a lovely edition it is.

    Laura: I don't think I have come across a bad reivew of this one so you should enjoy it.

    Susan: I think you are right about NYRB. But for the most part I have been pretty lucky with them.

    Kim: Knowing your interests, I think this one is right up your alley.

    Jill: I need to go put the film on my Netflix queue. Poor Natasha Richardson RIP.

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  7. Have you seen his Quince Tree Press books, very charming little books that sell here for only £1 and they're small enough to slip in with a birthday card. Especially nice are the books of wood engravings by Gwen Raverat and Thomas Bewick.

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  8. I read this last year and found it a really powerful little book. It felt just perfect but quite hard to describe why - that looks like a lovely edition.

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  9. I LOVED this when I read it a number of years ago for a book discussion group. So, so much to discuss, although I can completely empathize with your feeling clumsy trying to write about it. You've done a lovely job, though. Made me want to reread it.

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  10. One of my all time favourites - a perfect little gem of a book. Quince Tree Press - which Carr started - is still going and the editions of Carr's own novels are by his design and are lovely. He also designed some very idiosyncratic county maps which are lovely too. I recommend the Quince Tree Press for a visit! It is still run by the Carr family.

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  11. I agree with you, Thomas - this novel is one of those beautiful books that is so good it's hard to talk about. You did an admirable job in your review!

    In the film, Branagh plays Moon and Firth is Birkin. I thought it was very good but found it a little soft-focus somehow. But I think I would have loved it if I hadn't read the book already...

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  12. Not over wrought at all. Lovely. I completely understand such emotional connection to this book. I just love it.

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  13. Mary: QTP sounds fascinating I will have to look them up.

    Hayley: Writing about a good book can be easy. But writing about good writing is so hard.

    Emily: I would love to discuss this book with a group.

    Juxtabook: I love the fact that QTP is still in the family.

    Sarah: Netflix doesn't have the film. I'm not sure how I will see it now.

    Frances: I am glad my review didn't come off as poorly as I thought it did.

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