It is the summer of 1920, nearly two years since the end of World War I, but Tom Birkin has not yet recovered from his soul-scarring experiences in the British Army. Sometimes his face twitches uncontrollably, he talks with a stutter, and often he can be heard crying out in the night when dreams bring him back to the hell of life in the trenches. To compound the problem, his wife has run off with another man and he is penniless; there is not much work available in his rather exotic craft, the restoration of medieval paintings.
A solution to his problems, or at least a temporary escape, comes when he is asked to investigate the small country church of Oxgodby in Yorkshire and see whether there is an old mural there, buried under five centuries of whitewash and candle smoke, and whether it might be worth bringing back to the light of day. A small bequest for this purpose was made in the will of an eccentric parishioner, which also provided money for an archeologist to hunt around for the grave of a medieval ancestor who for some reason was not buried in the parish cemetery.
Like Birkin, Moon the archeolgist is a psychically battered veteran, and they each set up camp for the summer in conditions that grotesquely, peacefully echo their wartime living conditions--Birkin roughing it in the church's belfry while Moon has a tent and trench in the graveyard.
That's about all that happens in "A Month in the Country," except that Birkin and Moon both quietly find what they are looking for and, in the process, uncover a centuries-old secret that explains why the mural of the Last Judgment had been covered over, why the 15th-century grave of Piers Hebron could not be dug in consecrated ground. There is no particular suspense about these findings and no great fanfare when secrets half a millennium old are uncovered; it is simply the way things are, though it provides a nice bit of symbolism--two outcasts, back from a war that changed the world forever, discovering the secret of another outcast, also back from a soul-scarring war, called a crusade, that also changed the world.
"A Month in the Country" is as much poem as narrative. Symbols crowd its pages--objects and gestures--but the author never insists; they are simply there, to do their work for those who care to use them. In one dimension, the book is simply an apotheosis of the British countryside and the unchanging patterns of its life through the centuries--a paean to a lost world, since the Oxgodby of 1920 could not have survived into the 1980s and was, in many ways, closer to 1420 than to today.
It is not an idyllic place; a feral cat, skulking in the thick undergrowth, is one of the first living creatures Birkin encounters--a reminder that nature is a threatening as well as a sustaining presence. There are tensions in the town--between the people of the Anglican Church and the Wesleyan Chapel, for example--embodying an age-old class structure that the war has undermined as surely as Birkin's health.
Birkin, although working for the church (a grudging and ungenerous employer), finds his sympathies gradually won by the chapel and the whole social constellation it embodies. He begins to help out at Sunday school, takes meals with a leader of the congregation and his family, preaches a service at a smaller, nearby chapel and goes off with a delegation to select a new organ (actually a small, second-hand one) to accompany the singing.
The book's tensions crystallize in the organ-buying scene. The salesman embodies the new world being born out of the war; he can't bother too much about obviously poor people looking for a cheap instrument when there are more important customers about: "The proprietor was rattling off some dubious technical jargon while he cleverly managed to imply that he was casting pearls before swine without actually saying so . . . Eventually he said brutally: 'I expect you're wanting something second-hand.' We nodded in shame."
Representing the church is its vicar, the Rev. J.G. Keach--a dry, sour man who feels defeated and unfulfilled, trapped in his small, out-of-the-way parish where "many of those who attend divine service do so from habit." Birkin has trouble understanding how Keach's young, beautiful wife can stand the life she shares with him; he falls tentatively in love with her, fantasizes about pouring out his heart to her and running away together to start a better life--but nothing comes of it.
The book ends with all its tensions intact and unresolved, all its symbols unchanged, though they clearly point to a world struggling to be born. But if nothing much happens in "A Month in the Country"--nothing compared with the plot-filled books that cram the best-seller lists--it is nonetheless a unique and special experience, a visit to a special time and place, deeply observed and portrayed in beautiful prose.
"You know," Birkin remarks, as he watches Moon doing a tricky bit of archeological digging, "it's quite exciting to watch a professional at work if you bother to look. I mean going at a job he does really well." His remark applies aptly to the way J.L. Carr has put together this slim but tight-packed and splendidly evocative novel.