A Month in the Country

I read this book on a loose recommendation from MJ Wright, who mentioned it on reading my review of M.L. Stedmans’ The Light Between Oceans.  The character Tom Sherbourne in that book was a returning veteran from World War I, he was a man who didn’t have much to return to and chose the lone, isolated lighthouse as his place to work in his attempt to recover from the horrors of war.

I gained more a sense of his disturbance and difficulties in dealing with the ghosts of that past, the guilt that plagued him at being alive when so many of his compatriots had not made it, than I did from our Tom here in the country, the author choosing to infer rather than describe the thoughts and memories of his experience, protecting the reader somewhat from that horror.

Tom Birkin is home from the war and spends a memorable month in 1920 restoring a medieval wall painting in a small village church, where he is not entirely welcome, the commission being a pre-requisite to the Church receiving a substantial financial bequest from an elderly woman who has passed. Tom having discovered his wife has taken up with another man, travels north and spends his days on the ladder meticulously uncovering the work of a man he thinks about so often that by the end comes to know intimately, divining what happened to him.

I didn’t look like a Churchman. Indeed I looked like an Unsuitable Person likely to indulge in Unnatural Activities who, against his advice, had been unnecessarily hired to uncover a wall-painting he didn’t want to see, and the sooner I got it done and buzzed off back to sin-stricken London the better.

He befriends another man, known as Moon, who has been commissioned to dig outside the church boundary for a lost fourteenth century grave, one man working on high, the other down below. Outsiders both, they become as close as men can be who have no other friends and the unspoken experience of war between them. I wondered about the significance of digging up a grave, having read in The Light Between Oceans of the disturbing memories this invoked for Tom Sherbourne, when he had to dig one on the island, however it seemed not to have the same effect on these two men or if it did, we were not exposed to those thoughts.

A semi-autobiographical, slow burning novella, its pace like a refreshing walk in the English countryside, keeping two men occupied in that aftermath of war before returning to that same but changed place that will become the rest of their lives. It would be comforting to think that a month in the country could work magic for a returning war veteran, however I think it more likely to have been a brief but necessary respite.

It being the festive season, I couldn’t miss an opportunity with a title like A Month in the Country, to share this delightful photo sent by my family in New Zealand a few days before Christmas, having explained to a few friends here that we are not really into eating turkey and as you can see, they feel quite safe to wander up the driveway of my father’s home and show off their brood.

Happy New Year to you all and thank you for reading Word by Word and sharing your thoughts.

I hope to continue to find time to read a book a week in 2013, and have upped my challenge to 60 books!

All the best to you for 2013!

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26 thoughts on “A Month in the Country

  1. Yes, it’s true that it doesn’t have anything like the power of “The Light Between Oceans”, and it is definitely “a brief but necessary respite” rather than a cure, but that is continually intimated by Tom when he obliquely refers to things that happen in the future. I thought it was a good book to read after the first much more haunting work. I think, too, that I liked it because I am very interested in restoration.
    BTW, I watched “The Jane Austen Book Club” which I will watch again when I’ve finished rereading all her novels. I’m not sure that I’ve read “Emma” and “Northanger Abbey” before though I have an awful habit of totally forgetting storelines. In any case. I found the film interesting and entertaining though nothing special.
    Happy New Year – keep up the good work! I shall continue to follow your recommendations.
    Have you read “Paris: a love story” by Kati Marton? I may have mentioned this already, but it is my favourite book this year. It’s autobiographical and has much more to it than the title.

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    • It is an interesting follow up novel to The Light Between Oceans and made me think more about that story Tom’s character as a result, including cultural responses.

      Yes, as far as films go, it was light (good when one is in the mood for that), I just thought it was an interesting depiction of each of the characters in the novels, cleverly done.

      Happy New Year to you too, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, what are you reading now?

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  2. Thank you, Claire. I look forward to reading your blog in the New Year. 60 books is quite ambitious! Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2013.

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  3. I haven’t read ‘A Month in the Country’ since it first came out, but I remember being very moved by it. That was the year that Penguin made all six of the booker short list available in paperback so that it was possible to afford to read them before the final decision. Would that someone would do that now.

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    • There are often gems on the short and longlists of prizes going back in years, I’m always happy to stumble across one and love that this has been republished with some interesting anecdotes about such and inspiring and dedicated yet humble author – trading his work to pay a butcher – and you have to love a butcher with such appreciation of literature he even sponsored an award!

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  4. Happy New Year to you too.
    I haven’t read this one but I was terribly tempted when I heard about it here: pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com. Max’s review is excellent.
    Unfortunately, this is not available in French and the English seems too difficult for me.

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    • Thanks for the link, will check out the review. I’ve just been give Le Testament Français to read in French and am wondering if I can handle it, but luckily that one has been translated into English. Have you read it?

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      • Max’s blog is worth following, plenty of intelligent reviews there.
        No, I haven’t read Le Testament français. I heard it’s good. (I’m not that good in French lit when the writer isn’t dead. 🙂 )

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  5. Yes, I found a Month of the Country rather haunting…in retrospect, one of the things I found interesting about it, is that Jl Carr self published, and tramped around selling his books to booksellers… he sounded a lovely chap…Though self-publishing in the 20’s and 30’s didn’t seem such a big deal… Virginia Woolff ‘s husband’s firm publishing her novels for starters!

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    • Yes, there’s a lovely anecdote in the beginning of the book recounted by Penelope Lively about one of his manuscripts that was received by Michael Holroyd, when he won the Ellerbeck Literary Award from George Ellerbeck, the family butcher in Kettering. He received as a prize a non-transferable meat token for one pound of best steak and a copy of Carr’s novel The Harpole Report one of his unsold works, which it appears he used to pay the butcher! And this was in the early 1970’s. Actually, I remember those times in NZ, my own parents exchanged a side of lamb for boarding school fees on more than one occasion.

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  6. The Light Between Oceans is yet another book you mention that i wish i had the money for. A Month in the Country really should be better known, it has such a lovely and haunting quality. It is curiously reminiscent of Orwell’s Coming up for Air I found.

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  7. I read this many years ago and really liked it. At the time I recall they made a film of it – there’s a still from the film on the cover on my version of the book. I remember watching it on TV I think but it didn’t live up to the book – they seldom do I guess. Your review though made me think about the story for the first time in years – so think that will be one of my re-reads in 2013!

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    • Just started my reading year with a re-read and once I shook off that feeling of dwelling in the ‘been there’ past (being someone who prefers the promise of the unknown), I was once again captivated by this incredible book, Martin Booth’s The Industry of Souls, which sits somewhere between Primo Levi’s and JL Carr’s work, lessons for humanity from the Russian gulag, I definitely recommend you read it if you haven’t already.

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  8. It’s hard to read your description without thinking of how much publishing convention the novella seems to flaunt. When these things are pulled off, they make for superior prose. Thank you for sharing. And that parting photo is adorable.

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  9. 60 books for this year is pretty steep, Claire, but I know you can do it. I have decided to take my reading one at a time, as I feel so pressured with the Challenges. So this year no Challneges for me, except the Classcis Club and Women of Colour. Have a blessed New Year

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