A Month in the Country is a quiet, contemplative novella of just over 100 pages. Its impact sneaks up on you; in fact, I think I’ve divined greater meaning in my post-reading reflections than I did in the act of reading itself. Tom Birkin survived life at the front and returned home with a facial tic and serious emotional scars. When the book opens in 1920, he has just arrived in the north English village of Oxgoodby, where he is to restore a 14th-century wall painting in the church. He has no money, so he establishes a small camp in the belfry. He soon meets Charles Moon, a fellow veteran camping in the adjacent meadow. Moon has been hired to find a grave; both men’s jobs are required by the estate of a recently departed village resident.
As the two men settle into their work they find a certain rhythm, sharing meals, coffee and the occasional pint. Birkin is also visited by several villagers. Some are unhappy with his presence — like the vicar himself, who resents the intrusion in his sanctuary. Others think Birkin something of a curiosity (he’s from the south, after all), and still others value his friendship. Alice Keach, the vicar’s young and attractive wife, is a regular visitor, and their attraction to each other is palpable, and quite touching.
Birkin’s art restoration serves as a metaphor for his psychological healing. As the painting’s brilliant hues emerge from beneath the whitewash that kept it hidden for centuries, the weight falls from Birkin’s shoulders. He begins to take part more actively in village life, and takes great pleasure in the seemingly endless summer weather. As the restoration nears completion, he can envision a “life after Oxgodby” that he would never have thought possible.