A wonderful short novel. Written by J.L. Carr and published in 1980. The Folio Society published it in 1998, and I have the 2nd printing (2010). It is item 964 in Folio 60. It was short listed for the Man Booker Prize in 1980, but was pipped by William Golding’s Rites Of Passage. Earthly Powers was another strong contender for the prize that year.
Set in Monotype Caslon by Gloucester Typesetting Services. Printed on Abbey Wove paper. Quarter bound in buckram with paper sides. Introduction by Ronald Blythe. Illustrated by Ian Stephens.
Miss Adelaide Hebron has left a considerable legacy to a church in the small Yorkshire village of Oxgodby. The strings attached to this legacy are that a medieval wall painting in the church which has been whitewashed over is uncovered and that the grave of Piers Hebron be discovered if possible. This forebear had been excommunicated for some unknown reason and buried outside the Christian graveyard. Birkin, the narrator of this novel, is appointed to restore the wall painting and Moon is appointed to explore for the grave. Both Birkin and Moon are outsiders and veterans of World War 1. Each has suffered their own private hell on the battlefront and in their private lives. Birkin’s wife has left him, and he saw this opportunity as a way to make a fresh start in life.
On the day that he arrives, Birkin meets the awkward and somewhat hostile Rev Keach who makes it clear that the only reason that the project is taking place is to satify the requirements of the bequest. Birkin lives in the bell chamber of the church while he undertakes the restoration. He soon strikes up a friendship with Moon who lives in a tent in the grounds.
Kathy Ellereck, the young teenage daughter of the village stationmaster, starts to visit the restoration and gradually Birkin starts to become involved with her family, attending chapel, sharing the Sunday meal and even singing at family get-togethers.
Alice Keach, the vicar’s young wife also starts to visit the restoration and sits and talks with Birkin. He is taken by her beauty and starts to yearn for her. There is a nuance by nuance attraction between the couple which culminates in Alice pressing her breasts for more than a moment against Birkin’s chest as they look out of a window from the bell chamber. The moment that could change their lives is not seized and they never see each other again.
At a visit to a neighbouring town to purchase a new organ for the chapel Birkin runs into an old army acquaintance and learns that Moon, a medal awarded hero, was discovered in a homosexual relationship with his young batman and subsequently court martialled and imprisoned during the war.
As the story progresses we learn more and more about the painting as the wall is uncovered. The unamed artist was very skilled and used expensive colours. The revealed painting was a major work and Birkin marvelled at its beauty and the intimacy he shared with it. Its final revelation connects the painting to the grave which Moon was seeking. Moon and Birkin discover that the excommunicated forebear had converted to Muslim during the Crusades and this was why he could not be buried in Christian ground.
Their jobs now done, both Moon and Birkin depart..Moon for perhaps a career in archaeology…and Birkin to remember those days, the moments of happiness and pain in a memoir written half a century later.
This short novel is beautifully constructed. It explores various sorts of hell. Some of these hells are horrifying, yet short lived..though the effects will remain forever..such as Birkin and Moon facing the horrors of WW1. Another sort of hell is more about a feeling of shame which never ends..Moon being exposed as a homosexual in a wartime environment… and Birkin’s wife running off with another man…. in the sense that there will be always whispers around the corner Another sort of hell is regretted choices. We wonder why the much younger Alice married the vicar and we almost wish that Birkin had brushed his lips against Alice’s at the window instead of doing and saying nothing.
Another summary and review I’m sure that there are many ways of looking at this novel.
J. L Carr was in his 60s when he wrote this book. It draws heavily from his background. He was a station masters son from a Wesleyian family from the north of England. As an adult he was involved in attempts to preserve a small parish church , the echoes of which can be seen in this novel.
The illustration on the cover is exquiste. For me, some of the others don’t work quite as well. I like the illustrations of the ferry, the picnic, and Birkin and Alice gazing out the window.