Email this review


The month is August 1920, when reminiscing narrator Tom Birkin--a young Great War veteran deserted by his wife--takes his first, underpaid professional job, uncovering the medieval wall painting in a north-of-England village church: ""This is what I need, I thought--a new start, and, afterwards, maybe I won't be a casualty any more."" Tom, still suffering from shell-shock's after-effects, lives in the church's bell-tower and shares morning coffee with fellow veteran Moon--a witty young archaeologist who's tenting in the meadow next door, digging for a medieval sarcophagus. Another easily made acquaintance is quick-minded teenager Kathy Ellerbeck, who wanders in to observe Tom at work, invites him to tea and chapel; soon she even has him helping out with Sunday school, with an expedition to buy (as cheaply as possible) an organ for the chapel. But Tom's most intense--if most restrained--summer involvement is with Alice Keach, charmingly innocent young wife of the somewhat older, stuffily off-putting church vicar: Tom yearns for her from afar, chats to her while he uncovers the Judgment Day mural (a masterpiece), and rather painlessly enjoys the impossibility of his crush. . . till both the pathetic vicar and virtuous Alice stage a sudden retreat from the situation. Similarly, Tom's chumship with Moon will never be the same after a mutual Army acquaintance casually reveals Moon's homosexuality. And, though Tom would in some ways like to stay on in this village of Oxgodby, he'll pack up his things and head back south again, to rejoin his returning (but sure-to-be-unfaithful-again) wife: ""We can ask and ask but can't have again what once seemed ours forever--the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on the belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face. They've gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass."" More like a long short story than a novel, undramatic and sometimes too limply nostalgic--but this spare, unpretentious tale is rich in wry village atmosphere (church vs. chapel), with Tom's postwar recuperation engagingly paralleled by the art-restoration and the small-scale archaeology.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1983
Publisher: St. Martin's