In J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country,
narrator Tom Birkin looks back many decades to the summer of 1920,
which began for him with his spirit shattered. His wife had run off
with another man, and World War I battlefields still haunted his mind.
Tom, a Londoner trained as an art restorationist, had his first independent commission that summer. As a result of a provision in a will, he was hired to recover a painted-over 500-year-old wall mural in a church in the north of England. The church was his home and workplace; he slept in the belfry and spent his days on a scaffold in the chancel. As Tom gradually uncovered a masterpiece depicting a biblical judgment scene, he felt an exciting connection across the centuries with the anonymous artist.
Village residents pulled Tom back into human fellowship. His first and regular companion was another outsider and veteran who was hired as a result of the same benefactor's will to find her ancestor's grave. Tom also had intriguing conversations with the vicar's wife, with whom he secretly fell in love. Villagers gave him food and invited him to their homes.
Tom was a changed man as his sojourn ended even though there were no dramatic turning points in his story. The country people; picturesque rural England in summer weather; work that engrossed him; and "not having to worry my head with anything but uncovering their wall painting" produced a transformation. "The anxious time was over; I was in calm water now," Tom recalls feeling.
But he is also a wise old man as he writes his memories. Would he have been happy if he'd stayed? Happiness cannot be locked in, he says: "People move away, grow older, die . . . It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies."
Written in spare, elegant prose, A Month in the Country is deeper than its 111 pages and uneventful plot might suggest. It offers a meditation on the thought that the best route to change is not to look for it. Tom didn't actively seek escape or rescue; he went to the country to do a job. It's the countryside, art, other people, and an engaging project that were the active players in restoring Tom's spirit. His contribution was simply to be receptive.
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