What the reviews said, then and now…

“This was the book nobody rejected, because they did not get the chance,” wrote biographer Byron Rogers of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. That’s not quite true. There were a few reviews of Carr’s book when it was first published, even before it was short-listed for the Booker Prize and received the Guardian Prize for fiction.

Still, the tone for the early reviews before the awards were announced, and the tone now, decades later, is markedly different. See if you agree.

Reviews in 1980:

“There is a strong temptation to call this an idyll, and the temptation need not be resisted, for so it is, in the true sense of the word. But this should not suggest any sort of cloudly poeticism. The writing is energetically colloquial, well-salted with specific detail. Totally unsentimental, but although so clearly observed, it is all seen from a distance. Half a lifetime has passed since 1920, and the brief episode is preserved undimmed and unaltered, needing no other pathos than that of the past. Slight but beautifully done, this book has a quality of its own that will not be easily forgotten.”

Graham Hough, London Review of Books

“It is short; it is odd; it is memorable; it is admirable.”

Marghanita Laski, Country Life

“One of the joys of August, when few novels are normally published, is to catch up with anything which has fallen through the net. J.L. Carr’s new novel is something which nobody should miss whose roots really belong to the English countryside. Mr. Carr’s is a beautiful tale, and, at any rate so far as this reviewer is concerned, a profoundly affecting one.”

Auberon Waugh, London Evening

Reviews since 2000:

Slim as it is, this is a tender and elegant novel that seemingly effortlessly weaves several strands together. Carr has a knack for bringing certain scenes into sudden, sharp focus, rather as waves lift forgotten things to the surface. He writes with particular precision and admiration about the joys of skilled men going about their business. He also subtly evokes lost rural customs and ways of living that, even at the time, had begun to fade from view: cart rides and seed cake and honey-thick accents that had not yet been filed down by mass communication.

The sense of things lost to time is pronounced but not overplayed and there’s a gently elegiac quality to the developing picture of a warm and hazy English countryside summer. This pleasant vision is countered by his rawer and more acute account of the deep mark left on a man when a chance of happiness is glimpsed and missed and left to settle in the memory.

Natasha Tripney, The Guardian, 2010

Happiness is a rare subject. Pain, disillusionment, and misfortune are well documented. Great novels turn on betrayals and confrontations: adulteries and wars; tragic misunderstandings and sudden upheavals of the heart. Plot is driven by conflict (or so the chorus goes). Revelations propel narratives.

Happiness, on the other hand, is trickier. Happiness is static, rarely dramatic. Instead of sudden twists of action and circumstance, it yields subtleties. Contentment builds slowly and steadily build; joy emerges fully-formed from a beautiful collision of time and place. Wonderful in life but, in a book, usually the conclusion of a drama or foregrounding for a tragedy; rarely the foreground.  …

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. In a world where the most vivid heavens and hells are of our creation, Carr suggests, paradise and purgatory are deeply personal. What we value most in life, then, may also be the most difficult to share. After all, though the tacit love between Birkin and Alice is one of the most beautiful and memorable aspects of the book, it really amounts to little: the layers of affinity and implication that grow in their conversations, a blush flaming Alice’s pale cheeks, her vanishing laughter which sounds, “like…well, like a bell.”

Ingrid Norton, Open Letters Monthly

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