“The marvellous thing was coming into this haven of calm water and, for a season, not having to worry my head with anything but uncovering their wall-painting for them.And afterwards, perhaps I could make a new start, forget what the War and the rows with Vinny had done to me and begin where I’d left off. This is what I need, I thought – a new start and, afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore.”
This short book is part of Penguin’s Decade series representing along with a handful of other books the decade of the 1980s. So why does this book stand out and get that sort of treatment is the question that is at the forefront of the mind as you start reading of Tom Birkin and his antics in a Northern village.
Set in the 1920s with the memories of the First World War still vivid the story centres on the shell-shocked signaller Birkin as he leaves the capital behind, with problems with his wayward wife Vinny, and heads up to a remote village chapel tasked with the job of uncovering a medieval mural hidden for centuries under paint and grime.
The time spent on the job and the ease with which Birkin slips into village life provide him with a chance to try and forget the past and get beyond the facial tick and stutter and back to a more normal life. But there are reminders with a fellow veteran working on an archeological dig next to the chapel.
But memories of the past are everywhere and life throws up new problems and temptations and Birkin is left leaving his time in the country with fresh regrets and as many things to think about as he did when he first arrived.
“‘…the friends you have made, this marvellous summer, the splendid job you’ve done. I mean the lot. You can only have this piece of cake once; you can’t keep on munching away at it. Sad, but there it is! You’ll find that, once you’ve dragged yourself off round the corner, there’ll be another view; it may even be a better one.'”
The themes in this book of covering up the past, revealing the truth, facing that sense of being in the wrong place return again and again and are played out in the connections with the war, the peeling back of the mural as well as the failed relationships of the vicar and his wife with the villagers.
Birkin fails to take the option for a quick affair or the longer option for a new life away from London but that’s because this is a man still coming to terms with himself and his past and a month in the country might well remind him of who he is and the beauty that can exist after the hell of war but it cannot keep away temptation and doubt completely.
This book is one of the 1980s books of the decade in the Penguin Decade series and leaps out at you because it is not only selected from a very wide field but looks like an idea Easter read because of the slim nature of the book.
It is an account of a man who has returned from the trenches of the First World War with a facial tick and a habit of stammering as he works through the shock of the trenches. He heads off to the country to help his recovery focusing on his skills as a restorer and discoverer of old murals in churches.
As he settles in to a country life the setting is right for some rehabilitation but is it going to be the result? A review will follow shortly…