Published by Penguin
Publication date – 3 February 2000
Source – own copy
A damaged survivor of the First World War, Tom Birkin finds refuge in the quiet village church of Oxgodby where he is to spend the summer uncovering a huge medieval wall-painting. Immersed in the peace and beauty of the countryside and the unchanging rhythms of village life he experiences a sense of renewal and belief in the future. Now an old man, Birkin looks back on the idyllic summer of 1920, remembering a vanished place of blissful calm, untouched by change, a precious moment he has carried with him through the disappointments of the years. Adapted into a 1987 film starring Colin Firth, Natasha Richardson and Kenneth Branagh, A Month in the Country traces the slow revival of the primeval rhythms of life so cruelly disorientated by the Great War.
Tom Birkin, still haunted by the Great War, has taken a job at Oxgodby, a small village in the English countryside. There he will spend the summer uncovering a medieval wall painting in the village church. What he doesn’t realise is he will also spend the month re-discovering himself, and a hope for the future.
It may seem that not much happens during this short tale, but that is not the case. There are multitudes of little things, working like bees in a hive to create a balm for Tom, with his tics and tremors, a souvenir of his days at war. Those physical affectations begin to calm down, becoming less noticeable, at least to Tom who comes to realise those he interacts with are adept at not seeing, or at least ignoring, his injuries. In this small village he can also heal his heart, coming to terms with the break-up of his marriage. Whilst he realises he cannot follow his desires, have them reciprocated by the women who inspires them, he does come to realise that he has the capacity to open his heart to love again.
As Tom heals from the nightmares that follow him from the Great War as he take on the peace of the countryside and the joy in his work, the reader slows down a pace too, the slower pace of life and intricacies of village life working their magic on real and fictional people alike.
The learning process is not one-sided. Tom’s influence on the village is silent, barely noticeable at first. But as he uncovers more of the medieval painting, he also uncovers more of characters inhabiting the surrounding area, showing them they can be both happy with their lot and capable of much more. Little things such as negotiating for a new organ for church, allowing Tom to preach, instead of the Pastor having to run himself ragged being in two places at once. Little shows of defiance that are, in reality, much better for the soul.
The author manages to transport the reader to Oxgodby. The fields surrounding the church are brought to the mind’s eye, the reader can see Tom’s bed and camp stove, up a ladder in the church tower, see the pony and cart, laden with villagers off for their day’s holiday, can hear the hymns being sung in the Pastor’s parlour and see the family, and Tom, gathered round for Sunday lunch.
The setting is of course picturesque. Reading it, there can’t be many people who wouldn’t mind a retreat into the countryside to reset themselves at some point. An a retreat it is for Tom, wise enough to realise he needed something to calm his troubled mind. His month in the country exposes him to new realisations, allows him to find new strength and shows him that friends can be found in the most unlikely of places.
There is a sense of hope and sadness that runs throughout the story. There is joy that is reflected from the peace Tom finds but sadness in knowing that this will not be permanent. The fact that Tom has this time to reflect back on during his life is a bittersweet consolation to both him and the reader.
A 128 pages the story is fleeting, but as with Tom, remains with the reader long after the final page has been turned.
A truly lovely read, a calm, contemplative short novella that allows the reader to reset and rebalance, before setting out again into the maelstrom of the present.