This is a perfect little novel. It’s about a recently returned Great War vet whose wife left him when he got back taking a job restoring a mural in a small North Country Vicarage. It was written in the 1970s by an older writer and so it has that nice flavor of remembering a time long past and being able to write about it in the frank, stark honest terms not always available at the time.
Birkin shows up in the North during a torrential downpour without a place to stay, being constantly reminded (without prompting) that he’s paid by the job and not the hour, and always watched. He gets a little too enmeshed in the small town life of Oxgodby and his own nonchalant Agnosticism fits in more or less perfectly with the perfunctory Anglicanism of the town. They care about decorum and good standing and doing right by people.
As he get enmeshed and the mural begins to stand out it becomes clearer and clearer he sees himself at a sort of crossroads.
The novel is written as if from decades later and should recall to you mind the same kinds of humor and yearnings as in The Remains of the Day.
It also perfectly captures that sense of outsider to a place feel so common to summer books.
“For my money, the Italian masters could have learned a thing or two from that head. This was no catalogue Christ, insufferably ethereal. This was a wintry hard-liner. Justice, yes there would be justice. But not mercy. That was writ large on each feature for when, by the week’s end, I reached his raised right hand, it had not been made perfect: it still was pierced.
This was the Oxgodby Christ, uncompromising…”
“I moved gingerly about my new territory. Just above head level the roof’s keel drove back to bed itself into the tower wall, punctuated at its crossings by three quite extraordinary bosses, their original color preserved by the gloom which lingers perpetually in the fastnesses of high roofs. It was a splendid medieval gallery–nearest me, an almost Spanish head of the stricken Christ caught amid the leaves of a gallows tree; further along, a golliwog devil thrusting his grinning head between a couple trapped in the wrong bed; finally, a plump woman holding a blue shield of lilies. It proved what every true church-crawler knows–there’s always something of surpassing interest in any elderly building if you keep looking.”