J.L. Carr

A Month in the Country

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A Month in the Country Summary

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A Month in the Country is a 1980 novel by J.L. Carr, which received the Guardian Fiction Prize in the same year. The novel, which is only 130 pages, tells the story of WWI survivor Thomas Birkin and the idyllic summer he spent in a small town in the country called Oxgodby. Critic Ingrid Norton says that “the novel is so deeply felt and hard to shake precisely because of its mixing of happiness and brevity.” In other words, Carr kept the novel short as a device to hone in on the emotion of happiness.

The story is told in hindsight from its narrator, Thomas Birkin. In the year 1920, Birkin stumbles out of a train somewhere in England. He is alone, and rain is beating down on his back. A little girl stares at him from out of the train window. He is wearing a long, tweed coat that he thrifted from a market. He is still traumatized from the horrors he has just seen in the war, and is reeling from a recent separation from his wife. He also has a facial tick, which he acquired due to exposure to gas. Despite his troubles, he feels happy for the fresh start, and makes his way towards a church in town.

When he arrives at the church, he meets the vicar, who is not excited to learn that Birkin will be living in the church’s belfry. Birkin, stating financial difficulties, insists that the belfry is the best place for him to stay. The two also have an argument about which stove Birkin will be using. The vicar shows him the job he will be working on: a dusty, dirty, grimy medieval wall painting that needs restoration. The job is being funded by the will of a recently deceased gentry woman. Although the mural needs a huge amount of work, Birkin is excited and happy to start the job.

Birkin quickly eases into his long workdays. He recalls the training he received to become a painting restorer and his pride at learning a trade. The work is hard, but his new life in the country is slow, and that is exactly what he needs after the hellish experience of war. He becomes acquainted with a man named Charles Moon, who is also a veteran. Moon is also being employed by the church to uncover a lost grave on the premises. The two quickly form a friendship and bond over their shared wartime experience. They spend their days working next to each other and talking, and taking frequent tea and lunch breaks.

Occasionally, Birkin visits the reverend Keach and his family. He forms friendships with a fourteen-year-old girl from town named Kathy Ellerbeck and reverend Keach’s wife, Alice Keach. Kathy tries to persuade him to stay in the country after his job is over, claiming that everyone is very fond of him. Birkin and Alice start to realize they have feelings for each other beyond friendship, but neither one of them acts on their feelings.

His love for Alice is also enhanced by the love he starts to feel for the green country around him and for the community. As he becomes more enmeshed in his job and his surroundings, his facial tick starts to fade. He also starts to notice some strange features about the painting he is uncovering. As he admires the technical ability of the artist, he also starts to think that another painter may have completed a section of the painting. In a section showing “damned” souls in hell, he wonders if one of the faces was that of a former member of the parish.

The summer progresses, and he becomes even happier. He watches Moon work on his projects. He has long conversations with Katie and Alice. He surprises himself by becoming more involved with the local churches. As he completes his work on the painting, he realizes the painter of the piece died while he was completing it, and that’s why he didn’t finish it himself. He also discovers that the “damned man” happens to be a relative of Miss Hebron, the project’s benefactor.

When the painting is finished, Alice comes to visit Birkin inside the church and admires his skill and craftsmanship on the job. While there, they share a look of acknowledgement about their love for each other, and Birkin contemplates acting on his feelings. In the end, however, he realizes that he would change both their lives drastically by doing this, and he decides not to create any drama. The two part with a cordial goodbye. Alice leaves town with her husband.

Birkin gets a letter from his wife asking if they can try to rekindle their relationship. He decides to take the chance of returning to her. After one last look at the painting he departs from Oxgodby.