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A Month in the Country - Michael Holroyd, J.L. Carr "But then, inevitably, as happens to most of us, first through Saturday umpiring, later Sunday chapel, I was drawn into the changing picture of Oxgodby itself. But, oddly, what happened outside was like a dream. It was inside the still church, before its reappearing picture, that was real. I drifted across the rest. As I have said--like a dream. For a time."

Tom Birken is summoned to the countryside from the teaming streets of London to practice his craft revealing a Medieval painting that was originally painted 500 years previously, and had been whitewashed over about a hundred years later. It is a picture of doom predating the fantastical, terrifying visions of Bruegel by at least a hundred years.

Mad Meg by Pieter Bruegel

Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel

Birken in 1920 is a shattered man. He has survived the war, but experienced his own vision of hell on the battle field of Passchendaele. The estimations are that the British allies and the Germans each lost over 200,000 men between July and November of 1917. He emerged from the wreckage of that battle, shell shocked, and still three years later betrays himself with a stammer and twitching cheek when he is experiencing a stressful moment. He has acquired a skill, a skill nearly expired, of carefully revealing and preserving old murals on church walls. The Oxgodby job is a gift, maybe one of the few remaining times when he will practice his craft. "Our jobs are our private fantasies, our disguises, the clock we can creep inside to hide." He has a wife who has betrayed him, a war that has wounded him, and a world that is telling him that his skills are obsolete. He needed this job.


He has no idea what is behind the whitewash, but it isn't long before he knows he is working on a masterpiece. "So, each day, I released a few more inches of a seething cascade of bones, joints and worm-riddled vitals frothing over the fiery weir. It was breathtaking. A tremendous waterfall of color, the blues of the apex falling, then seething into a turbulence of red; like all truly great works of art, hammering you with its whole before beguiling you with its parts."

Medieval era wall mural

He meets a man named Moon who is camping in a tent in the cemetery and has been commissioned to find the bones of an ancestor for their patron. As time goes on, and both men realize how simply wonderful this moment in time has been for them, they start to linger in their work, making it last, not wanting it to end. There is a story about Moon that you will have to read the book to discover.

Oh and lets not forget that Birken meets a woman. Not just any woman, but one of those women that turn your knees to jelly and in the case of Birken make his cheek twitch. She is the vicar's wife, Mrs. Alice Keach. She was much younger than Keach(the vicar), no more than nineteen or twenty, and she was very lovely. More than just pleasant-looking I mean; she was quite enchanting. Her neck was uncovered to her bosom, and immediately, I was reminded of Botticelli--not his Venus--the Primavera. It was partly her wonderfully oval face and partly the easy way she stood. I'd seen enough paintings to know beauty when I saw it and, in this out of the way place, here it was before me."

Netflix has yet again let me down. There is a movie from 1987 starring Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth, but Netflix does not have it. At this point it appears I will have to buy it to see it. I can only hope that they do the book justice.

Kenneth Branagh as Moon. Natasha Richardson as Alice Keach. Colin Firth as Birken.

The introduction to the book in the NYRB version is written by Michael Holroydand it is excellent. I love it when an introduction fires up the reader to read the book. He talks about his own odd intersection with J. L. Carr, but the most resonating bit he shares is in regards to Carr's funeral.

"Carr died in 1994 and his funeral service in the Kettering parish church was, in the words of Byron Rogers, 'like the passing of a spymaster.' He had such disparate interests that there seem to have been many J. L. Carrs, and since he compartmentalized his friendships, few of his friends knew each other. 'What I remember most about his funeral service was the fidgeting...as the mourners kept squinting sideways to speculate about their neighbors,' Rogers wrote. 'Then, at the very last minute there was a clatter of high heels and a very young, very beautiful woman came in, dressed in fashionable black. She came alone and at the end was gone, just as abruptly, into the March afternoon.' No one knew her or could find out who she was--an ex-pupil, mistress, cricketer, flower-arranger, Sunday School teacher...but readers of A Month in the Country may feel that she had stepped out of its pages.

Don't miss this one, a more than pleasant diversion for a Sunday afternoon. You will be right there in Oxgodby falling in love, gnashing your teeth over the absurdity of it all,enjoying the peacefulness of knowing, really knowing you are happy, and you too might discover the importance of lingering over a moment, a glorious moment when life seems to be working for you and not against you. If you are like me you might even find yourself yelling "for godsakes take her in your arms and kiss her." Highly Recommended!

The Mysterious J. L. Carr