I just finished J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country a few days ago. (In fact, I must admit that this book was part of my inspiration for creating this blog.) It is the story of a WWI veteran (Tom Birkin) who is employed to uncover a Medieval wall painting in a small country church. There is another veteran (James Moon) who is hired to find the grave of an ancient ancestor for a wealthy patroness of the village. Through the novel, both men are coming to terms with their experiences with the war, and trying to rebuild their lives after the catastrophe.
What makes this a fine example of Old Knock literature are the two character’s professions. Birkin is a passionate expert in uncovering “lost” wall paintings. He is an expert not only in the techniques of restoration, but in the history and culture that went into making the paintings. He is a true Medieval art scholar. Moon is also an expert. He is not merely a grave-digger, he is an archeological excavator who is actually looking for an ancient Anglo-Saxon structure. Digging for the ancestor’s remains is merely an excuse for his larger passion—historical excavation. He too is a Medieval historical scholar.
The characters in Carr’s novel are wonderfully developed. They breathe with real human emotion. But they also embody another important Old Knock trait: reserve. In fact, both men are constantly battling their desire to become more intimate with those around them, while at the same time understanding the futility of such an act. They are Romantics, but tragic Romantics. They believe in beauty and life, but they also are cynical about humanity and whether or not it will ever truly reach its potential.