A Month in the Country by J L Carr

This is lovely, and full of beautiful passages about the passing of summer, none of which are overwrought or over-done. It’s all written with astonishingly good taste. It was 99p on the Kindle the other day, so I downloaded it.

It reads like 20,000 words pulled out of a much longer text, and you feel as if the narrator assumes you know more about him than you do. But then this is a novella about trying to pick up the threads of a life that was interrupted by the Great War — which (correctly) isn’t named as such in the book, because there was no agreement in 1920 as to what to call it. And this structural metaphor (the missing pieces and details of a life) is carried on in the plot details. One person is slowly uncovering a painting, the other slowly digging in a field, both of them trying to reveal/recover the past.

The softly understated abjection of these two returning soldiers makes them outsiders, living in a community but not part of it; welcomed into it to an extent, but unable to commit themselves. While some connections are made, there are also missed opportunities and lost moments. As I said above, none of this is handled in an overwrought way, and there’s a tasteful, subtle air to the whole thing, never more effective than when a death is mentioned.

I’ll never quite understand lit-fic’s obsession with religion, but there’s something here about the established Church and the Wesleyan Chapel, the competition between them, and the weird dissonance of the Church of England parson seeming to be more of a dour Calvinist than the warm and welcoming Chapel people.

The film is an interesting watch (it’s on Amazon Prime in the UK), because on one level, the filmmakers obviously get it, but badly miss the mark in other ways. Understatement becomes overstatement. There’s a scene in a tea shop involving a third returned soldier, but the film gets the tone of this encounter completely wrong. Similarly, the interior warmth of the narrator is more or less lost in the film, and I don’t think you could possibly argue that this exterior coldness is in the book.

I can’t decide whether the inconsistencies of the novella (there are names that don’t match initials and other odd details) are deliberate (part of the puzzle of this fractured life) or simply mistakes that haven’t been fixed in 40 years.

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