by J. L. Carr
‘By nature we are creatures of hope, always ready to be deceived again, caught by the marvel that might be wrapped in the grubbiest brown paper parcel.’
The parcel here is not grubby – grubby would never be a word I would use to describe a NYRB edition – but there is certainly a marvel wrapped in its paper. Tom Birkin, attempting to recover what the Great War and a broken marriage left of himself, goes to work in a remote Yorkshire village. He has been commissioned to restore a medieval mural in the local church. While uncovering this truly remarkable depiction of the apocalypse, he makes friends with the unique and entirely individual population of Oxgodby, enjoys a tantalizing bit of romance, and begins to find his life worth living again.
A straightforward storyline to all appearances, but this lovely little book is from page to page not what you’re expecting. The blatant outline of the story is deceiving – there are big, sweeping themes there, but Carr tells it with masterfully subtle strokes. You stand with Tom as he takes in the view from his bell tower accommodations in the early morning. You go to tea at the station master’s house, and get fondly harassed by his teenage daughter. You barely speak to the minister’s wife, but manage to communicate volumes. You admire a stove for its clever design. You are in Tom’s head, and so you can’t help but feel his pleasure when the sun shines, almost miraculously it seems, on his face. In spite of his twitch and stutter and nightmares, in spite of the weight of the lost and gone, even though Tom has only fleeting moments of happiness, the book is full of a sense of wonder and hopefulness. The small marvelous things are recognized, even if they are as simple as a hot biscuit or as astonishing as a piece of art hundreds of years old.
And yet, for all that the majority of the book seems to be about healing and resurrection, it is told by an older Tom who is looking back with a kind of wistful pain on the wondrous month he spent in Oxgodby, remembering the people he knew and loved for such a brief moment in his life, a moment that has passed and was long ago. So intimate with Tom for an equally brief 135 pages, I was left wondering what happened to him. What was the rest of his life like, and why did I set the book aside with the tightness in my throat of near tears?
An exquisite piece of writing.