I’m currently reading Wilkie Collins ‘Hide and Seek’ and meant to post about it tonight but due to a weekend spent with my youngest sister I’ve not done much reading – a lot of cooking, shopping, and some theatre going, but the nearest we got to books was buying some new ones.
‘Hide and Seek’ talks a lot about art and what it can do for the artist which reminded me of ‘A Month in the Country’ which I read a few months ago for a postal reading group. I didn’t feel that I could talk about it until its original owner got it back complete with everyone’s notes and thoughts about it, but it should be home by now so...
I loved this book which would otherwise have completely passed me by – one of the good things about book groups. I was really pleased to find a copy in a 3 for 2 offer a couple of weeks later – it’s definitely a re-reader. For such a short book (only 90 odd pages) it made a profound impression on me, I was on the fence until page 13 when there’s talk of an English baluster, and Bannister Fletcher – it took me right back to my own student days and set me off on paths of remembering which set up nicely for what follows.
‘A Month In The Country’ tells the tale of Tom Birkin damaged survivor of the first world war and a bad marriage. It’s late in the summer of 1920 when he turns up in the village of Oxgodby to restore a church wall, and I have to admit that my first assumption was that it was a novel contemporary with that period. It soon became clear from the language that this couldn’t be the case, but a quick check revealed that Carr was born in 1912, wrote ‘A Month In The Country’ in 1980, and a slightly slower check that his work has a strongly autobiographical element to it. When he talks about those last few years before the horse was replaced by the motor it really feels like memory and not imagination which is certainly part of the power of the book.
Birkin camps in the tower of the church he’s working on and quickly becomes absorbed in his labours and into the local community. The weather stays good and the summer stretches on with Birkin quietly getting over his shell shock, and equally recovering from his bad marriage as he falls for the vicar’s wife. As the church mural is revealed so are two more stories – that of the original artist, and something of his subject. When Carr evokes the long dead muralist describing the colour of his beard from hairs left in the plaster and describes Birkin’s feelings on standing in this masters footsteps he describes something I recognise.
Everything comes to an end when the weather breaks, Tom moves on taking his memory of a perfect summer with him which is as it should be. His affair with the vicar’s lovely wife reaches a conclusion which I found both perfectly appropriate and very moving. I’m generally keen on short stories and novellas but it’s rare that they stick with me as this one has.