May 2019: A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr

Tuesday, May 7, 2019 – discussion lead: Bev

A Month in the Country is the fifth novel by J. L. Carr, first published in 1980 and nominated for the Booker Prize. The book won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980.

The plot concerns Tom Birkin, a World War I veteran employed to uncover a mural in a village church that was thought to exist under coats of whitewash. At the same time another veteran is employed to look for a grave beyond the churchyard walls. Though Birkin is an unbeliever there is prevalent religious symbolism throughout the book, mainly dealing with judgment. The novel explores themes of England’s loss of spirituality after the war, and of happiness, melancholy, and nostalgia as Birkin recalls the summer uncovering the mural, when he healed from his wartime experiences and a broken marriage. In an essay for Open Letters Monthly, Ingrid Norton praised the novel’s subtlety:

The happiness depicted in A Month in the Country is wise and wary, aware of its temporality. When he arrives in Oxgodby, Birkin knows very well life is not all ease and intimacy, long summer days with “winter always loitering around the corner.” He has experienced emotional cruelty in his failed marriage. As a soldier, he witnessed death: destruction and unending mud.

But the edges are brighter for it. Birkin’s idyll in the country is brought into relief by what Birkin has gone through in the past and the disappointments that, it is implied, await him. Carr’s great art is to make it clear that joy is inseparable from the pain and oblivion which unmake it.

Many of the incidents in the novel are based on real events in Carr’s own life, and some of the characters are modelled on his own Methodist family.

About the author: 

From wikipedia: […]Joseph Lloyd Carr (20 May 1912 – 26 February 1994), who called himself “Jim” or even “James”, was an English novelist, publisher, teacher, and eccentric. […]

[…]In 1986 Carr was interviewed by Vogue magazine and, as a writer of dictionaries, was asked for a dictionary definition of himself. He answered: “James Lloyd Carr, a back-bedroom publisher of large maps and small books who, in old age, unexpectedly wrote six novels which, although highly thought of by a small band of literary supporters and by himself, were properly disregarded by the Literary World” […]

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