James Gault reviews A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr
I found this a well written book but kind of upside-down. Most novels build suspense for the major events that happen later; this one builds suspense for nothing much to happen. That doesn’t make it a bad story; in fact it makes it more interesting.
The main attraction of this novel is its sense of atmosphere. It takes us to the quiet countryside of Yorkshire just after the end of World War 1. You feel the warmth, the long and languid days, a lack of urgency that tends to laziness. But we also feel the troubling emotions simmering under the bland and polite exchanges between the characters. Nothing is just as it appears on the surface. The two incomers, the archaeologist and the picture restorer, are there not just to do their jobs, but to deal with their terrifying life experiences. The women say little, but through their limited words the author conveys the depth of their hidden emotions. Everything they say means more than just the meaning of the words they utter. But in the end, it all comes to nothing. As it probably has to, in the prim post-war social climate of early twentieth century rural England.
The author has managed to construct a fascinating tale where what matters is what is not done and what is not said. It’s a great read, but you have to put in the effort to probe for what is hidden beneath the surface. Well worth the effort!verything. If the author can bring a group of fascinating characters to life and make us believe in them, this will often sustain a slow story. Does the author succeed in this here? Well, yes… and no. The characters of Petter the priest and his wife Mona are outstandingly well drawn; I felt for them and was immersed in their problems. Unfortunately the other characters were less effectively written. The author tended to introduce them using character descriptions, which were not always reinforced by their subsequent words and actions. Also disconcerting was the attempt to put adult thoughts and feelings into the minds of the couple’s baby and toddler.
As well as a journal, this is also a book very much themed on theology. Three points of view are presented: the Christian faith of the preacher, the lingering superstitious beliefs in the old legends held by the postman, and the atheistic views of the Russian refugee doctor on the island. The author chooses not to concentrate on the differences between them, but rather to search for an accommodation that allows a place for all three. Each acknowledges that the others maybe have some sort of point. This is an admirable sentiment, but it is another factor in removing conflict and tension in the book, and contributes towards its rather bland feel.
For me, the main achievement of this work is the way it evokes the atmosphere of the setting, the cold, the harshness of the life and the isolation. This is not a bad book, and will be enjoyed by many. Women will be attracted by the characterisation of the two main characters. It is a book that almost makes it for me, but not quite.
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