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This Miniature Masterpiece Is Quietly Transcendent
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This Miniature Masterpiece Is Quietly Transcendent


When it comes to books, some people like them loud, full of action, sex and gunplay. Author Jesse Browner is not one of those people. He recommends the elegant and understated "A Month in the Country" by J.L. Carr for our series, You Must Read This.

JESSE BROWNER: An editor once rejected a novel of mine because he claimed it was too quiet. My novel had no epic sweep. It wasn't a multigenerational saga. It offered no sex or violence. It was a simple story of an ordinary man having to face and overcome his problem by his own devices. My book was quiet, very quiet, and the editor felt that there weren't enough readers out there for novels like mine. Perhaps he was right.

It's true that there aren't many quiet novels in the canon of great literature. One of the rarest gems among these is J.L. Carr's tiny masterpiece "A Month in the Country."

The year is 1920. Tom Birkin is a young art restorer trying to recover from the nightmare of the trenches and from having been abandoned by his unfaithful wife. He's hired to restore a mural in a little country church of Oxgodby in northern England. Tom sets up shop in the village. He sleeps in the belfry, lives on bread and cheese, takes endless walks in the glorious countryside and works long, lonely days uncovering a medieval fresco hidden behind a scrim of plaster, inch by painstaking inch.

On the surface of it, not much more than that happens in the novel. Tom befriends the locals, falls in love with the parson's wife, becomes attuned to the slower, simpler pace of rural life.

By the end of the book, he's declined the opportunity to bed the parson's wife and considered and rejected the idea of settling in Yorkshire permanently. We leave him as we found him, his little bag of possessions on his shoulder as he moves on to whatever life's next phase holds in store.

And yet, the genius of this brief novel is that it contains all of life in its diminutive crucible. Almost nothing happens, yet everything happens. Most importantly, Tom needs to be healed as we all do, to some extent, and he is, by the restorative powers of his slow, patient work, by his recognition of love, by the erosion of his isolation in the warm waters of community. And as his month in the country comes to its gentle, quiet end, the reader, too, somehow feels healed as if they'd shared a common, ancient hurt.

I was already 30 years old when I read "A Month in the Country" and well on my way as a writer who thought he knew what he wanted to say and how to say it. But the novel made me stop and think again.

I've spent the past 20 years trying to master the miniaturist's art of the quiet novel and I'm nowhere near my final destination, but even after all these years, "A Month in the Country" is still a powerful beacon for me, piercing the quiet night.

NORRIS: Jesse Browner is the author of the book, "Everything Happens Today." To comment on this and other You Must Read This essays, go to the Books section of our website,

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