Tom Birkin, a veteran of World War I, finds himself in Oxgodby, a small English village. His job is to uncover and restore a medieval mural rediscovered in their church. Tom has a good idea of what he’ll find behind the layers of paint and grime- a depiction of the Judgement. He doesn’t know just how good the artist was or how the painting will affect him.
Tom has some issues. He has a tick from “shellshock” and his wife runs around on him. He’s just in Oxgodby to do a job and get paid, not become an object of curiosity. Right from the get-go Tom is adopted by the friendly Ellerbeck family. They get him involved in village life and Tom is good natured enough to go along with it. Over a few weeks, some of Tom’s wounds are healed by goodwill of the people and the quiet solitude he finds in the country church.
A Month in the Country is a quiet story of a man who needs someone to reach out to him, not in a touchy-feely sort of way, but by finding a few people who can bring him back into the world again. The Ellerbecks have just enough pushiness to accomplish this. They’re the sort of friendly country people Tom feels he can’t disappoint. Carr’s characterizations are written in such a way that even though people like Tom rarely reveal much about their personal lives, I still got a strong sense of who they are. I was impressed by that.
The parallels between the painting of the Judgement and Tom’s war experiences are obvious and even one of the characters mentions it. As more of hell and the descent of the people into it is revealed in the painting, the more Tom becomes part of Oxgodby.
A Month in the Country is told as a retrospective, which is interesting. Tom will sometimes say, “I didn’t know this then…” or “I hadn’t met this person yet…” It was a little disconcerting but made me pay attention to that event or person when they appeared. For that reason, I would like to reread it, since I think I’d get more out of it with a second reading. It’s a short book anyway.
It’s a quiet book, not a lot happens. The most thrilling part is an awkward conversation between the Reverend and Tom (which he totally deserved). There’s some unrequited love and a thin thread of a mystery surrounding the painting, but these things are just in the background. It’s really about finding peace within oneself in unexpected places.
If you enjoy quiet British period pieces like I do, then you’ll like A Month in the Country.