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.
It’s been an utter pleasure rereading this splendid short book, heading back to 1920’s Oxgodby and its five hundred year old church painting. Reacquainting myself with the inhabitants, and a way of life lost to time reminded me of Carr’s evocative prose and the beauty of the English countryside.
This is a great story to get lost in – one which demands repeat readings be savoured – it really accentuates the little things in life, those wondrous things that surround us, yet seem hidden in plain sight until viewed in hindsight. There is a comforting sense of isolation here, a total delight to be immersed in.
The plot revolves around the methodical and gradual uncovering of a medieval wall painting and this also extends to the personalities of the people. As time moves on there is a slow exposing of both, as well as the social life of the village. All this is played out in such a relaxed manner that the under the surface busyness is very subtly played out.
Birkin’s love for mechanisms and how the parts slot together are a fitting metaphor for how he sees the community and also in a literal sense of the time. There is a feeling of being on the cusp of changes in his life, in the rhythms of countryside and nature and how the industrial age is really starting to impact the isolated countryside. It’s pleasurably melancholy and allows readers of any age to feel the loss of what once was.
My reading of this book was very visual. it’s one of those experiences that is difficult to explain, yet very vivid in my mind. The sharpness of the details and descriptions were in stark contrast to the dreamlike nature of it all, and the blurred edge atmosphere that I experienced, if you know what I mean. This peaceful novel is all about time and timelessness, of restoration and alienation in a world on the brink of change.
This moving tale also has the a little bit of the unashamedly impenetrable Yorkshire accent but not enough to confuse (anyone British, at any rate), unlike the bloke from Wuthering Heights who was just beyond me. The effusive talk about paint was a further charm to this work, making me want to learn about colours and techniques. Birkin’s connection with the enigma of a long dead artist and his motives for painting particular details make it an absolute joy to be lost in. It’s one of those books I’m really glad to have read and to be able to share, with its message of enduring and embracing what we have, when we have it.