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This Miniature Masterpiece Is Quietly Transcendent

Jesse Browner is a novelist, food writer and translator.  He is the author of the upcoming <em>Everything Happens Today</em>.
Nina Subin / PR
Jesse Browner is a novelist, food writer and translator. He is the author of the upcoming Everything Happens Today.

An editor once rejected a novel of mine because he claimed it was too "quiet." He may have had other reasons too delicate to mention, but I understood exactly what he meant.

My novel had no epic sweep; it was not a multi-generational saga; it offered no sex or violence; it was not set against the backdrop of sweeping social commentary. 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 were not enough readers out there for quiet novels like mine. Perhaps he was right. My book was never published.

It's true that there aren't many quiet novels in the canon of great literature. A few are famous — Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, for instance — but most are not. 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 is hired to restore a mural in the little country church of Oxgodby, in northern England. He sets up shop in the village, where life has scarcely changed since the church was built, sleeps in the belfry, lives on bread and cheese, goes for long walks in the glorious countryside, and works long, lonely days uncovering a medieval fresco hidden behind a layer 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 has declined the opportunity to bed the parson's wife, found the hidden fresco to be a great masterpiece, and considered and rejected the idea of settling in Yorkshire permanently.

We leave him as we found him, his only 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, even unfulfilled love, as a regenerative force, 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 had 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 this book 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.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jesse Browner