Near the very end of J. L. Carr’s exquisite short novel A Month in the Country, Moon finds the missing 400-year-old grave where, all along, he knew it would be.
It is summer, 1920, and, as Tom Birkin watches, Moon has been digging into the North Yorkshire turf of Oxgodby for several hours, taking his time. Then Birkin tells the reader:
So it was close on six when he signaled the Final Probe by sending up his shoes and socks in the bag and, excitement getting the better of him, began brushing away with rapid strokes, so rapid indeed that you could say the stone swam into sight. A carved shaft branched gracefully into whorls of stone raised upon a convex lid, at its head a hand holding a sacramental cup, a wafer poised at its rim.
Both Birkin and Moon whose name is Charles were in the Great War, both injured, Moon still carrying shrapnel in his leg, Birkin a face-twitch, the result of shell shock. Both, outsiders from the south of England here up North where the accents are thick and the daily rhythms slower.
A Month in the Country is Birkin’s story, but no character is given short shrift — not the 14-year-old Emily Clough, dying of consumption; not Rev. J. G. Keach, the nervously pompous minister who, against his wishes, has had to hire Birkin to restore a large mural in his church; not Alice Keach, the minister’s strikingly beautiful wife of 19 or 20 who gives Birkin a rose from her garden; not Lucy Sykes, “a brown-faced young woman, a fine healthy child-bearer…pretty but terribly shy”; not Mrs. Ellerbeck who is chagrined at Birkin’s drinking song, chagrining Birkin and leading her husband to tell him a little later,
“Keep it q.t. but her dad was a boozer who didn’t know when to stop. You often find them like that, up on the Wolds: it’s the Danish blood in them. In fact, he had a long fair beard and blue eyes. I don’t think he ever liked me.”
And not the Colonel, the surviving brother of the rich widow who left the money for Moon’s search for the remains of one of her ancestors and for Birkin’s work of mural restoration. Birkin tells the reader:
He was a tall drooping man, carelessly dressed, disorganized, remote, the sort of man you couldn’t make any contact with, who didn’t even look as though he was listening. Maybe he was a very shy man who made himself butt in on people and affairs which didn’t really interest him. Perhaps his sister, the redoubtable Adelaide, had been his life-line and now he was adrift.
As I say, Carr’s novel is Birkin’s story, but his finely detailed, finely felt treatment of the other characters as well is a measure of the book’s delicacy, humanity and subtlety.
“A casualty anymore”
Birkin’s job of clearing away centuries of overpaint, soot and dirt from what turns out to be a stunningly imagined Judgement scene underneath starts as simply something to fill his time at a moment when his life has fallen apart. He’s got this twitch from the War, and his wife Vinny has left him for another man but will probably return and start the cycle all over again.
It starts that way, but, as Birkin recognizes at the end of his time, he “lived with a very great artist, my secret sharer of the long hours I’d labored in the half-light above the arch.”
Indeed, for all of his British stiff-upper-lip as the novel opens, Birkin arrives as a broken man. He’s looking for “a new start and, afterward, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore.”
He knows this is what everyone he meets is thinking: “What befell you Over There to give you that God-awful twitch? Are you here to try to crawl back into the skin you had before they pushed you through the mincer?”
And, then, after several weeks, Moon tells him that the twitch has gotten much better, adding, “I don’t suppose you noticed it happening, but Oxgodby’s just about ironed you out.”
A Month in the Country is a celebration of brokenness — not the suffering of brokenness but, rather, the vulnerability that brokenness brings.
In the war’s aftermath, Birkin’s life has collapsed, and he has been left with deep emotional wounds. When he arrives in Oxgodby, he’s going through the motions of what he has to do, almost an automaton. He holds himself close, thickly defended. He is happy to sleep on the floor of the small room in the church bell tower — to save money, he says, but even more, it seemed, to keep his life uncomplicated.
Yet, he is also a British gentleman, courteous and mannerly, and, when 14-year-old Kathy Ellerbeck starts hanging around to watch him work and engages him in aimless conversations, he goes along. As he does when, at the urging of her mother, he is invited to the family dinner.
He is courteous, but also lonely. Just about everyone he meets recognizes this and recognizes his need to keep life at arm’s length. So, the people around him engage in a subtle dance with Birkin to draw him gently and caringly into their lives and draw him out of himself a bit.
He even falls in love — with a woman who reciprocates his feelings but is pretty much unattainable. Their mutual courtship is delicate and quiet.
“Seemed ours for ever”
Birkin’s life in Oxgodby is an idyl although one that has its own pains, its own sorrows. In this foreign, slow-moving place, he heals. And, when he leaves, he never goes back.
And what Birkin’s left with — some half century later when he is writing this remembrance — is a memory of peace, wonder, something deeply elemental, something deeply beautiful in the art he finds and the place he lived, a still joy and, yes, regret. Not just for lost love, but also for a lost moment.
Not lost as if it were fumbled. But lost because of the nature of life.
As Birkin explains at the end of his story:
We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever — the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.
All this happened so long ago. And I never returned, never wrote, never met anyone who might have given me news of Oxgodby. So, in memory, it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long dry on a put-down pen.
Patrick T. Reardon