|Doom painting at Dauntsey, Wilts.|
Tom Birkin, a young artist arrives in a Yorkshire village in the glorious summer of 1919. His job is to restore a medieval Doom painting recently discovered in a local church. Shell-shocked from his time in the trenches, he makes friends with an archaeologist, Charles Moon, who has also suffered his fair share of war trauma, compounded by his ill treatment at the hands of the British military establishment when his homosexuality is revealed. Birkin at least temporarily finds healing in the remote village, its beauty, and the simplicity of the villagers. He is confronted both by the goodness that religion can engender as expressed by the Ellerbeck family, and also by the deep rifts and persecution that it can cause both in the savage treatment of his friend, Moon, and, unexpectedly, in the life of his own medieval artist, whose tragic story is finally and brilliantly revealed in a great piece of joint detective work.
For a little book - it's just around 136 p. - it packs a punch, and was deservedly nominated for the Booker in 1980 (it was beaten by William Golding's Rites of passage) in a prize shortlist that also included No country for old men. On the surface it seems a very slight read, but there's lots to think about here from the uses and abuses of organized religion to the traumatic effects of war. And although it appears to be an optimistic book, there is the distinct feeling at the end that this is no happy ending. Birkin's life may temporarily be elevated by his stay in the peaceful village, and his crush on beautiful Alice, the vicar's wife, but eventually his life will go back to what it was with the additional burden of his wartime experiences.
It may be that it is this ending that gives the book its power. It feels real. Life after all is like that - you have moments that are highly elevated, and then life just goes back to....well, back to life, I guess.
It's a very English book. The English countryside and character have rarely been so well portrayed. And that characteristic slight British emotional detachment, blindingly obvious in the characters of the vicar and his wife, is contrasted amusingly with the passionate religiosity of the non-conformist Ellerbeck family. It's a smashing little read - funny, emotional, great story line, and some unexpected moments. Find a place on your bookshelf for the wonderful J.L. Carr.