What’s it all about?:
In J. L. Carr’s deeply charged poetic novel, Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War and a broken marriage, arrives in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby where he is to restore a recently discovered medieval mural in the local church. Living in the bell tower, surrounded by the resplendent countryside of high summer, and laboring each day to uncover an anonymous painter’s depiction of the apocalypse, Birkin finds that he himself has been restored to a new, and hopeful, attachment to life. But summer ends, and with the work done, Birkin must leave. Now, long after, as he reflects on the passage of time and the power of art, he finds in his memories some consolation for all that has been lost.
What did I think?:
I read this novel as it was a book club choice, and I had heard so many good things about it. The story centres around a man called Tom Birkin who is pursuing a new career where he uncovers hidden relics i.e. paintings, after being discharged from the army post World War I. His new assignment takes him to the village of Oxgodby in Yorkshire where he is set the task of restoring a mural in the local church in which he also makes his home for the summer. The book tackles a number of different themes including war and the trauma experienced by its survivors, love and the paths we make for ourselves, religion, the process of ageing, and how we store our memories. Sadly, Birkin has been highly traumatised by the experiences he went through as a soldier, and in the break-up of his marriage, but through his work in the church and his interactions with the people in the vicinity learns to come back from the brink of despair, appreciate life more fully, and perhaps even fall in love again. I did enjoy the optimistic message of hope that came through the writing, and it was interesting to watch Birkin grow as an individual as the painting was uncovered over that memorable summer.
I’m sorry to say that even though I appreciated the beauty of this novel and what the author was trying to do, it did not resonate with me as much as I hoped it might. It was certainly atmospheric, and the author has a gift when describing evocative sights, sounds and smells. Moreover, I was intrigued enough by the character of Birkin that I wanted to finish the novel, but it just felt like something was missing for me. On the positive side, there was an undercurrent of humour throughout that did amuse me and I particularly enjoyed the scene where Birkin is harangued into preaching at the church, and does so with good grace but with considerable awkwardness, being neither religious nor a preacher! I probably wouldn’t read this novel again, but I am glad that I did read it, even just for the poetic undertones and descriptions of the suffering of war veterans.
Would I recommend it?:
Star rating (out of 5):