A Month in the Country by J L Carr

Can this Booker-shortlisted novella really live up to expectations?  When Fiction Fan and I decided to publish our thoughts about this little book on the same day, no one seemed to have a bad word to say about it and what’s more, everyone seemed to respond to it with real affection.  Winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980, presented as the genuine much-loved English classic, the risk of disappointment seemed alarmingly high.  I need not have worried.  Reading A Month in the Country was a joy.

The fifth novel written (and subsequently published) by J L Carr is a slender book, around 100 pages.  It recounts a sojourn in the summer of 1920 when Tom Birkin, veteran of Passchendaele and recently separated from his wife, arrives from London in the North Yorkshire village of Oxgodby.  Rootless, roofless, virtually penniless, with prominent facial tics and twitches betraying the toll of his time in the trenches, he has accepted a commission to reveal a medieval painting in Oxgodby church, financed by a bequest from a local woman, the late Miss Hebron.  The current church incumbent, Reverend Keach, is openly hostile to the project but if his church fund is to receive its own bequest in turn, he must permit the work on the painting to proceed.

Just outside the churchyard another young veteran is also labouring on behalf of the late Miss Hebron, to uncover the burial place of her ancestor.   Charles Moon has been working for a while before Birkin arrives and has already determined the most likely spot for the grave.  This he keeps to himself, using the time available to him to investigate other archaeological remains he has observed.  He will not ‘discover’ the hidden grave, he explains to Tom, until the final days of his tenure in Oxgodby, by which time he will have all the information he needs to be able to write a scholarly report on his other findings.  The two young men are bonded by their work and through their harrowing experiences of war. Moon camps in a tent outside the churchyard; Birkin sleeps in the belfry from where, each morning, he gazes at view from the window:

“… the 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 away from the plain.”

When Tom first steps off the train, the rain is falling heavily.  But from then on the Yorkshire countryside is replete with the bounties of a glorious summer.  People visit him as he works atop the scaffolding, slowly revealing the work of a master craftsman.  Among them are the kindly stationmaster’s daughter, Kathy Ellerbeck, and Alice Keach, the young and beautiful wife of the resentful vicar.  The villagers take him to their hearts; Tom is pulled into community life.  As the days pass, his damaged soul is soothed.  It is a golden, halcyon period of healing.

The marvellous 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. And afterwards, perhaps I could make a new start, forget what the War and Vinny had done to me and begin where I’d left off. This is what I need, I thought – a new start, and, afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore.

Well, we live by hope.

Fiction Fan and I chose to post our responses to this book on the same date – just as we did with The Go-Between by L P Hartley.  In each book we have a male narrator looking back on the events of a single idyllic summer in the early years of last century – the parallels between these books would have been there anyway but perhaps they are sharpened by this blogging co-incidence because as I read Carr’s novella, Hartley’s book loomed large.

The sunshine in Hartley’s novel is relentless and foreboding.  The summer is one of tragedy and innocence lost.   In Carr’s novella tragedy has already extracted its price and innocence lies slain on the battlefields.  Yet the tone is lighter.  Carr’s sunshine enables; Hartley’s sunshine oppresses.  Both are novels of loss, both describe summers with lifelong consequences.  But for Tom Birkin the summer was essentially one of healing; for Leo Colston in The Go-Between the summer wrought irrevocable damage.  I cannot rank one novel over the other but I know that I will return to A Month in the Country often.   

Reading it now – at the end of an unprecedented summer of our own – adds further piquancy.  As I write, there is a bright crisp day beyond the window, with blue skies, cotton wool clouds and a fresh nip in the air.  This is the first sunshine we have seen for some while but there is no doubt that autumn is at the door.  Tom leaves Oxgodby as summer gives way to autumn.  His final morning is replicated here today, forty years later: 

“Then it was one of those marvellously clear days which come after a good blow.”

I’m not sure there can be anyone who has yet to read A Month in the Country but if there are, I urge you to read it soon.  I understand now why others think of it with fondness.  Poignant and bittersweet yet written with the lightest touch, it is filled with memorable vignettes and characters.  Many significant themes are woven as subtle threads into a bucolic tapestry.  None are laboured but there is more here than a pastoral tale of the Yorkshire Wolds in the sunshine.  The story ambles without haste and reading should not be rushed.  Time seemed to stand still in the novel itself but also whilst I read.  (Perhaps this explains my only criticism of the novel: that events described must surely have taken longer than the titular month.)

I began reading by a library edition from the Penguin Decades series, an edition which jarred for its cover – I really wanted that bold pastoral scene which is on the cover of the Penguin Modern Classics edition – but also heightened the unease I felt about when this book was written.  The nineteen-eighties: a decade which represented the very opposite of the era captured in its pages.  If I had picked up this book then, could it have transported me as it does now?  I find that hard to believe, clearly remembering my life at that time.  But I imagine that it transported many others – away from Thatcher’s Britain, beleaguered strikers, soaring interest rates and unemployment.  Perhaps even then, alongside its deeper themes, A Month in the Country represented an oasis of nostalgia, a tale out of time.

I am happy that I’ve left it until now to finally read this book; this is the right time for me.  And I’m even happier to have discovered that Quince Tree Press, which Carr and his wife established in order to fund his writing, continues to publish all his works.  It is still run by the Carr family.   Knowing very quickly that this was a book I would return to often, I was delighted to be able to order my own copy of this little book from them, with illustrations throughout and a cover which speaks to me of the tale within in a way that the Penguin Decade edition could not.   

Colin and Ken c. 1987

My final thoughts?  Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh…  I watched the film (released in 1987) immediately I had finished the book.  It’s a charming film and it was absolutely the right time to watch it, whilst the subtleties in the book were still fresh in my mind.  But oh, was it the right thing to watch Colin and Ken so young and fresh-faced?  They are (just about) my contemporaries.  Surely it was only yesterday that we all three were equally young and fresh-faced?  (Any lack of fresh-faceness on my part at the time can be attributed to juggling three young children and degree-level study.  Without that I’m sure I could have played the winsome, dewy Alice Keach every bit as well as the delightful, late Natasha Richardson.)  

Watching the film, it was hard to turn away from the inexorable passage of time.  But for a while, A Month in the Country allowed me to step outside of time.  It led me to a place far away from pandemics and personal issues to a place where life seemed simpler; folk were respectful of each other and honourable; wounds could be healed by kindness, acceptance, physical labour and routine; people were hopeful.  And the sun forever shone in August.

“During any prolonged activity one tends to forget original intentions.  But I believe that, when making a start on A Month in the Country, my idea was to write an easy-going story, a rural idyll along the lines of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.  And, to establish the right tone of voice to tell such a story, I wanted its narrator to look back regretfully across forty or fifty years but, recalling a time irrecoverably lost, still feel a tug at the heart.”

J L Carr
J L Carr

60 thoughts on “A Month in the Country by J L Carr”

  1. Nice to see you back, Sandra, and I’m glad you loved A Month in the Country, it sounds as though it was exactly the right book and time for you. It’s always special when that happens. I’m afraid I wasn’t quite as boled over by it as I was expecting, but it still had a definite charm, and certainly harps back to a much more simple existance, which we could all do with right now. I see what you mean about it being rather like the Go between as well. I preferred the latter, and the feeling of oppression and heat have really stuck with me, but I’m glad to have discovered A Month in the Country also, and taken part in the review-along.

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    1. Thanks, Alyson 😊 I noted your comments on FF’s post and can see how similarly the two of you viewed this one. It’s fair to say that I found it a more satisfying read than you both, I think. Regarding The Go-Between, it’s strange that I gave T G-B 5 stars on Goodreads yet couldn’t do the same for A Month in the Country. As with you, the emotions raised by The Go-Between have stayed with me and I found it such a powerful book. Carr’s novella is lighter – somehow that tanslates to me as being easier to write perhaps? Who knows! But I certainly enjoyed it very much. It’s such a good experience exploring a book with others like this. I’m glad we were all able to take part.

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    1. Perhaps. Perhaps it’s the talk during lockdown of the ‘simpler time’ generated by the restrictions which helped me to connect with this one and also my stage of life. I live a simpler life now anyway and wouldn’t change it. And for those still enjoying the plate-spinning lifestyle, maybe a little interlude with Carr’s novella would be a small breathing space 🙂

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  2. You’ve made me want to read this again, Sandra. I read it when the film came out, when I was 17 and overly romantic about the First World War (having a dad named after one of his two uncles who died in France in 1917 helped that teenage affectation along). I’m sure there will be things in the novella I would read differently now.

    And oh, Colin Firth. I’ve loved him since the film version of Another Country and he has improved with age. In acting, humour, activism and looks 😊.

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  3. How wonderful that you really liked this book. I think it is nothing short of a marvel. Carr addresses some pretty major themes but the story never feels rushed. I am a besotted fan of this writer and need to check out more of his work. But, I wonder, would his other books come up to the standards of “A Month in the Country”?

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    1. So glad that you love this one too, Laurie. I agree – major themes but never rushed. Yet all within 100 pages and with such lightness of touch. I haven’t read anything else by Carr but I plan to as a result of reading this one. A Month in the Country is generally considered to be his best book and each of his others are very different to one another. I’m looking forward to them!

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  4. This was my first Carr, and I definitely think it’s his masterpiece. So much in such a short work, and so beautifully written. And he catches atmosphere so well. I have read others by him, and loved them too – they are different to this, more comic but with underlying pathos too. A marvellous author.

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    1. I hope it appeals to you, Chris, if you give it a try. Quite hard to imagine anyone not liking it, although – as I’m sure you’ve seen from FictionFan’s post – not everyone is as enamoured as I am!

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      1. When I’m in the mood I enjoy these nostalgic pastoral pieces, and in this respect Alison Uttley’s The Country Child — a fictionalised account of her own Derbyshire childhood — comes foremost to mind. I have to admit that that half a century of urban living would’ve once made me shy away from such offerings, but a decade in a former Welsh farmhouse and half a dozen years in a small market town has made me more attuned to the precious nature details and country traditions.

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  5. My copy of the book is the Quince Tree Press one. I think you’ll like this edition. I bought it when the travelling theatre company I think I mentioned came to perform this in our (Yorkshire) village hall. I don’t even want to see the film, Colin Firth or no Colin Firth, as this production was a perfect complement to the book. Oddly, and unlike me, I can remember the production better than I can the book itself. But it’s a book to keep rather than simply to borrow.

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    1. Absolutely, Margaret – a book to keep. I hope to collect his other titles from QTP too. I thought of you as I was writing this piece, knowing of course that you would have read this Yorkshire classic. But to have seen the play…. I won’t deny that I’m very envious. I didn’t realise until googling whilst writing the post that there is a play at all – although of course it must lend itself perfectly to a performance. There’s also a ballet – that got me thinking. I totally understand that the live production negates the need for the film.

      (This puts me in mind of Journey’s End which I saw performed and then subsequently watched the film. Despite being well produced and well-acted, the film did nothing for me.)

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        1. Six degrees will be this Saturday. Always the first Saturday in the month which has given us almost an extra week this month. Has that meant that mine is also dressed and ready to go? Of course not! But at least you’ve reminded me!

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          1. Oh, thanks for that. I think last time the first was a Saturday, so I assumed it was the 1st that was the starting block. Mine is absolutely and completely ready to roll. She boasted.

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  6. Beautiful review, Sandra – you do the book full justice and more! I saw the comparison to The Go-Between too, but that didn’t work to this one’s advantage for me, since I love the oppressiveness of the sunshine in The Go-Between, and the much darker (and to my cynical mind, more realistic) view of society around that era. I wonder whether my own dislike of sun and heat sways my feelings? I have always seen the sun as an enemy! I did love the writing in this and it gave me the same kind of feeling as listening to a lovely piece of music, but you know me – I like a book to delve into man’s inhumanity to man. He touched on darker themes for sure, but for me, he handled them too lightly. It’s all about mood and subjectivity though, and I quite see why so many people love it even if it didn’t blow me away as much as I’d hoped. I wondered too if that was because my expectations were too high, my slump is still niggling away at me, and I was rushing to read it for a deadline! I’m not sure I gave it a fair chance. 😉
    I’m glad to hear you think the film is worth watching too – I must track it down. It has of course the added advantage of starring my Darcy – that alone makes it essential viewing, I feel!
    Next up – Tender is the Night. I’ll put out a reminder in a few weeks and see if everyone’s still in. It’s fun getting everyone’s opinions at the same time when they’re fresh. 😀

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    1. I can completely see that of the two, Go-Between would win out for you, FF, and in many ways it did for me, as I explained in my reply to your post. Despite the parallels, the two books are different beasts. Reading this one at the appropriate time of the year and my natural predilection for the nice over the nasty are both pointers in favour of Carr’s novella for me. But seriously, I can’t rank one over the other.

      I feel you should watch the film though, just to be sure that Darcy was performing up to scratch. He was so young…. prepare yourself! You should be fortified with chocolate beforehand!

      (Yup, TisN next. This is going to be a big ask from me I think. I’m starting from such a low opinion of Fitzgerald though, hopefully things can only go up!)

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  7. So abashed was I at not having read A Month in the Country that I halted midway and placed an order with Amazon. As usual, the wicked wizard in perpetual knowledge of the desperation of the buyer had priced it steeply with the tag ‘only 1 copy left’. Well, I will report to you later.

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    1. Oh gosh, Uma! I do hope you enjoy it 🤞 I hope, given all that’s going on in your part of the world and knowing your feelings about this, that this little book might offer a brief escape 😊

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  8. I’m another one who has never read A Month in the Country but I’m going to sort that out very quickly. Then I’m going to watch the film.
    This was a lovely review. It sounds as if it was exactly the right book for you at this time 🙂

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    1. Rose, I was absolutely convinced that you had read this! Hence you weren’t reviewing along with us! I think it’s one you would enjoy but I’m sure you’ve read FictionFan’s thoughts too. Which way will you go, I wonder!! 😳 🤭

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      1. No, I saw the read-along invite but I hadn’t heard of the book and decided to wait until I read your and FF’s reviews. I feel as if I would like to read the book in summer though, as there was such a strong connection between the story and the time of year.

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        1. Very much tied to summer, Rose. Although I read The Go-Between – also totally focused on an oppressive summer – in January and still loved it. January would be perfect for you of course, if you decide to give this one a try 😊

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  9. I too read this a long time ago and saw the film when it came out. As ever, the film couldn’t quite match the subtlety of the novel, but it was still haunting and beautiful – even though I was starting to go down with the flu when I saw it! Gave the experience a rather weird hue…

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    1. Yes indeed, Derrick! Certainly watching those two gave me quite a jolt! The film cannot compete with the book of course, but it’s a gentle interlude and a nice way to escape for 90 minutes. Enjoy!

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  10. Ah, I’m not the only one to have linked this and The Go-Between in my mind! — I reviewed the two together a couple of weeks ago. They were absolutely perfect summer classics, especially as I read them during the peak of the heat wave we had in this part of the country. I liked the Hartley that tiny bit better, but I’m also glad I finally read this, having heard so much about it from so many. I have a Quince Tree Press paperback and noted its layout quirks but didn’t know it was Carr’s family press, so I’m pleased to learn about that. My library has another of his books and I will try him again, but I worry it won’t live up to this first experience.

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    1. I must seek out your post, Rebecca, clearly one I’ve missed. Though I’m glad that I hadn’t read it before putting my own together. I plan to read Carr’s other books but with no expectation of ranking them against this one. I know that each of his books is very different to the others but I’m hoping that Carr’s unassuming, humorous style will be a constant.

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  11. A beautiful review Sandra, and I MUST, MUST read it soon. It is in a pile of books waiting to be read- a pile which seems to increase without my knowledge and which I constantly juggle while trying to decide which comes next! A surfeit of treasures. Perhaps I ought to spend less time juggling and more time reading!
    xxx

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    1. Pat, I share your frustration at juggling! (And list-making in my case!) Do try to read this one. I know the differences in our respective reading tastes but I think this will appeal to you. Gentle, whimsical, nostalgic – a poignant escape. And it’s very short! xxx

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  12. I’m glad you liked this, I thought you would because of The Go-Between. Apart from the story I loved the information about the fresco. I still have to read The GB but will!

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  13. I have semi-skimmed your review, Sandra, because I have this on my pile to read and so will come back to it properly in due course. More specifically, it has been sitting in a ‘good books to read during the summer’ pile and here we are in September. How did that happen?!? Meanwhile, I have not really engaged my brain on anything else written by Carr – have you tried any of his other stuff?

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    1. There’s always another summer, Liz, when hopefully I’ll read a few more of the books still sitting in my ‘summer’ pile! As for Carr, this is the first of his I’ve read. I know it’s considered to be his best but I still hope to read some of his others. I loved his very English style 😊

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  14. OMG – I didn’t even recognise Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh from that photo!! Wonderful review Sandra, it really sounds like the right book at the right time. You certainly made me want to pick it up as well, poignant and bittersweet always appeal. But of course I hit the wall – every time we enter September, works goes from summer lazy to stressful insanity. So I might have to cut back on both my reading and my blogging for a while (non of which are too impressive to begin with 🙄😆).

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    1. I remember those days when my work pattern was similar, Stargazer. I don’t miss it! Hopefully you’ll find a little time for reading and blogging despite the work pressure 🤞

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  15. What a tempting review. I remember seeing the film, but I’ve never read the book, and the parallel you’ve drawn with The Go-Between makes it more tempting, as that’s near the top of my re-reading list.

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    1. I found it interesting that I gave The Go-Between more stars than this one but A Month in the Country was a more enjoyable read. There are parallels, certainly, but this book is lighter and doesn’t delve so deeply. Possibly easier to write, certainly easier to read. Both are now among my favourites. I hope you enjoy it if you give it a try, Cath.

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