Thursday, 11 December 2014

A Day in Summer by J.L. Carr

Quite a few of us in the blogosphere are fans of J.L. Carr's 1980 novel A Month in the Country - that gentle tale of a man who goes to help restore a rural mural. (Sorry, I couldn't resist that rhyme.) But I don't remember seeing reviews of any of his other novels - and had thought he might be rather a one-trick pony.

So, I was glad when my book group opted to read A Day in Summer (1963), Carr's first novel - and evidence that he was fond of A [Time] in the [Situation] titles early on. But, except for similar titles, these novels have very little in common - except, that is, for quality. Both are very good.

A Day in Summer sounds a very halcyon title, but this is belied by the opening few pages. Peplow is on a train, coming into Great Minden. He has an imaginary conversation with his Manager; one of several in square brackets throughout the novel, from different characters' perspectives, that give a very open access to their imaginations and projections:
["I wonder if you'd mind very much if I take Friday off?""I suppose not. Is someone ill? Is it urgent?"No - well, it is and it isn't. As a matter of fact I have to go off to a place in the country and shoot a man. Yes, that's right, a man. They call it Great Minden. Perhaps you know it?""Really! Great Minden! I had an aunt living near there. If you wouldn't consider it an impertinence, may I ask who - whom?""It's the man who ran down my boy last summer. He's with a fairground outfit, and on Friday he'll be at the Fair there I understand. So it would be very convenient.""Naturally! Shall we see you again on Saturday? Monday?""Well, no. I've more or less decided it would be better for me to finish myself off too. In comfort, on the way back, all being well. It would by-pass the embarrassing formalities that usually follow. I'm sure you understand."]
This isn't precisely the tone that the rest of the novel takes - although it would be rather fascinating to read a whole narrative in this style. He isn't really flippant about his action, and it is the thread that pulls the novel together, but Peplow isn't really the leading character of A Day in Summer. And that is because, more than any other novel I can remember, this is an ensemble piece. Once Peplow arrives in Great Minden, the narrative flits from character to character, weaving their stories together so that the baton naturally passes from person to person.

There is a lascivious young schoolteacher who is having an affair with the vicar's wife; the teacher is rightly terrified of the elderly spinster who runs the school with an iron fist. The vicar is desperate to hold his marriage together, but his wife despises him. There is a poor family with too many children, also with marital troubles; there is a dying man whose young son wonders why his mother left the family years ago. And, taking the cover on my book, is the man in a wheelchair, invalided by war, who happens to have been in action with Peplow.

There are, you see, too many characters to describe all that goes on; the plot is planned perfectly, and yet it feels less like a plot and more like observing villagers living their lives. Their unhappy lives, it should be said; misery is widespread, and marriages seem incapable of being content. Indeed, Peplow's paternal grief seems perhaps less vivid than the teacher Croser's sickness of being in a frustrating job, of the vicar's pain.

Throughout, Carr's tone is quite darkly witty, and I really loved it. Fans of A Month in the Country may find little to recognise, but this is by no means a weak first effort at novel-writing. Carr has a very impressive confidence even at this early stage, and handles a difficult tone and potentially unwieldy plot extremely well. Although A Month in the Country is a better book to curl up with for comfort, this is a stark, moving, and (yet) very amusing novel that is arguably equally good, in a very different way.


  1. Simon, I loved A Month in the Country, so I looked for a Kindle version of this (I can never resist instant gratification), which turned up One Hundred Christmas Proposals, Ten Days in Paradise and Chocolate Dreams at the Gingerbread Café!!! But fear not, I went on to locate - and purchase - a proper book, which should be winging its way to me fairly soon.

  2. For some reason I thought Carr had only written "Month" so I was flummoxed to find out he'd written this too. But it sounds absolutely fascinating, and as I loved "Month" so much I may well have to search out this one..... :)

    (Kaggsy - blogger still messing me about!)

  3. You must read 'The Harpole Report' - laugh out loud funny about primary school teaching in the 1970s and much loved by Frank Muir. Also How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the F A Cup. I marvel that J L Carr could produce such different but masterly novels. I still have to read 'What Hetty Did', 'The Battle of Pollock's Crossing' (short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1985), A Season in Sinji and 'Harpole and Foxberrow'.

  4. J.L.Carr is an English treasure - I love everything he wrote. You must read the biography The Last Englishman by Byron Rogers too.

  5. This one will probably be impossible to find here. Good to know that AMITC wasn't just a fluke and that there is more Carr worth exploring.


I've now moved to, and all my old posts are over there too - do come and say hello :)

I probably won't see your comment here, I'm afraid, but all my archive posts can also be found at