I picked up this book on a recommendation, having no idea what to expect. Even though it’s packaged as a modern classic, I confess I’d never heard of either the author or the novel before. Turns out, it is indeed a classic; it’s only 85 pages long, but in that short space of time it packs in more profundity and pause for thought than you’ll find in many far longer novels.
The story is simple. It’s 1920 and Tom Birkin, a traumatised survivor of the First World War, arrives at the village of Oxgodby to undertake a fresco restoration project in the parish church. The book follows him during the subsequent blissful days of summer, as he immerses himself in the community and an idyllic way of life the like of which he’s never experienced before. What makes the book so elegant is the contradiction that lies at its heart: nothing changes – and yet for Tom, that nothingness changes everything. On the surface most of Tom’s days are pretty much the same. He gets up, has a cup of tea with Moon, an archaeologist working in a neighbouring field, and then spends the daylight hours working on the fresco. Every Sunday he spends the day with the local Wesleyan minister, Mr. Ellerbeck, and his family, sharing their meals and helping out at the Sunday school. The pace of life in this sleepy rural world is so slow as to be almost stationary; the languid days drift into one another as the summer goes by. This is a world almost untouched, it would seem, by time; when Tom leaves at the season’s end we imagine things will continue just as before. And yet, as the local residents go about their normal lives, the visitor that they embraced is changing. Tom starts the novel still suffering from shell-shock; something as slight as a stressful conversation leaves one side of his face distorted and twitching. The author doesn’t dwell in detail on the horrors he’s witnessed on the front line but it’s clear that this is a man who feels his life has been broken. By the time he says goodbye to Oxgodby he has fallen in love, experienced hope and happiness, and is starting to feel at peace with the world again.
It may seem odd to say, then, that I actually found this quite a sad novel. In the final pages when Tom, now in his old age, looks back on the summer of 1920, the overwhelming sense is one of loss. Even during the novel’s happiest days there’s an underlying awareness on the part of the narrator that these moments of bliss will soon be gone. Tom knows, as his work in the church nears completion and the days of summer start counting down to autumn, that this period of his life cannot be extended. “We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed to be ours for ever,” he says. Yet alongside the sadness is perhaps a tiny flicker of hope: maybe the real beauty of times such as the summer in Oxgodby is that they are forever encapsulated in the memory just as they were. Love affairs don’t have the chance to go sour, friendships don’t have the chance to decay and Tom will never have to witness the village eventually succumbing to inevitable change as the years go by.
The writing is as gorgeous as the setting it depicts. It was written less than forty years ago, but it has a comforting, old-fashioned feel to it, completely in tune with the period in which the story takes place. It’s totally restrained – no shock plot twists, no melodrama of any kind – and yet it somehow packs in so much subtle emotion that I was left deeply moved, and surprised at how much it had managed to affect me. This is definitely one to read in a moment of quiet, when you really have time to take it all in and reflect. Read it at the right time and you’ll be well rewarded.