The third book I’ve read about murals in the space of a year (the others being Lanark by Alasdair Gray, and How to be both by Ali Smith, for anyone wondering).
A short and simple tale on the face of it, but with a lot going on below – a format I strongly favour. Tom Birkin, a shell-shocked survivor of the Great War, is commissioned by a little church in remote North Yorkshire to uncover and restore a medieval mural of Judgement Day. He arrives, he does his work, he gets to know people, he is happy for a month, he leaves. That’s it really. But oh, there’s so much more beneath the surface. Like Birkin gradually uncovering the mural, tiny section by section, the author gently reveals little details here and there – about Birkin, the people he meets, the life of the village – and a whole other picture emerges. The horror of the war, the foreshadowing of changes that will transform rural England, the end of an age: a doomed idyll. But an idyll nonetheless, and Birkin’s growing sense of freedom and peace in the countryside throughout that August, his love of the light and the landscape, the meaning he finds in his work, his sense of connection with the mural’s medieval artist, his affection for the locals, and the vicar’s wife in particular, are joyously moving.
There’s a pervading theme of things buried just out of sight: Birkin’s trauma and recently failed marriage, his new friend Charles Moon’s horrific war experience, the mystery of the ancient coffin just outside the church wall, a hidden pre-Christian burial site, the marvellous mural itself, the lovely vicar’s wife’s domestic misery – all requiring a little understanding, patience and skill to uncover. And with that is a theme of restoration, which gives the novel a sense of hope, despite its elegiac feel. Although the church is at the centre of the novel, it offers no hope or comfort, just empty rituals; the only renewal comes from meaningful work, art, nature, and compassion/love.
There’s also a lot about time, history, burdens, outsiders, craftsmanship, impermanence, which to discuss would make this review longer than the book itself (it is really short); suffice to say that I wanted to read it again as soon as I’d finished it, much more slowly, to really savour its wonderful artistry. A gem.