Rediscovered Classics: A Month in the Country

Posted on 2nd July 2015 by Jonathan O'Brien
J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country is the second in our monthly series of Rediscovered Classics
Each month we're choosing a classic novel that we really want to shout about. The sort of book which people have often heard of but have somehow never quite got around to sitting down and spending the afternoon with. For July, we have J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country. A brilliant tale of life after World War One and the effect it had on those who returned. One of our booksellers, Will from our Cambridge bookshop, has written a fantastic review for us.


I knew nothing about A Month in the Country before I picked it up, and having done so, I recommend everyone read this as soon as possible. At 85 pages this is a very short read, easily done in one uninterrupted sitting, preferably sitting outside in the sun away from the racket and distractions of 21st century living.

The story is a flashback to when Tom Birkin, our narrator, arrives in a small village shortly after the end of the First World War. He has been contracted to uncover and potentially restore a medieval wall painting that has been hidden in the parish church for hundreds of years. Alongside him in the churchyard is a fellow veteran Moon, who is being paid to try and discover the lost grave of a local’s ancestor. This is a very quiet and meditative story; free from earth shattering revelations or unexpected twists, it calmly follows Birkin’s time in the village, his interactions with the locals and his thoughts on his work. Set almost 100 years ago, it feels like a familiar yet strangely distant world: the life these people live is recognisable, but seems to inhabit a world immediately below us just out of reach. Regional dialects and colloquialisms, the routines of life revolving around the harvests and churchgoing, all seem to be in the autumn of their time, even when the book was set, let alone in the present day. Birkin dwells on these subjects, but they are always framed by the Great War: every so often he or Moon will recollect a story or reflect on what they gained and lost, making the inconsequential details of life in this village almost trivial. 

Despite its short length, this book touches on all of literatures’s great themes: life, death, love, art and loss. One part which was especially poignant to me is when Birkin is thinking about the unknown artist who painted the mural he is uncovering: he did not expect fame or praise for creating this mural, because they were alien concepts to the people at the time; that the artist knew that his art was ephemeral and that it would be admired for a few generations before ultimately being lost or destroyed was inevitable. In an age where fame and celebrity are rabidly pursued I think this story has a lot to teach us, especially in a world where the Great War is becoming increasingly distant and abstract, yet war itself is being more pervasive in our daily lives. This is a novel to help you step out of the frantic pace of today’s world and into a time, not that long ago, where experiences of love, faith and loss were felt much more powerfully.


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