Try Books! was highly impressed by this novella, and quite rightly so. We briefly recall that the story is set in 1920 and concerns the protagonist Birkin arriving in the North Yorkshire village to uncover a wall-painting in the church. Not a great deal happens, you might say–he uncovers the painting, but without any great repercussions, recovers somewhat from his experiences in the Great War and does not have an affair with Alice Keach, the vicar’s wife. At the same time, and following the provisions of the same will, another man (called Moon) has come to search for the grave of Piers Hebron, d 1373.
The narration impresses with its reticence–things like the death of Emily Clough are alluded to so that the reader himself sees and feels them, instead of a description being imposed on him from outside. The manner of the North Yorkshire locals–direct but without meaning harm is beautifully evoked, as is the changing of the seasons.
That is the important bit. There are also some reservations. It may be good that we confront so many items of specialised vocabulary in so short a space: fish-base, baluster, ashlar, sinoper haematite, sneck, but some of them raise doubts:
‘a spendid repertory of North Riding dishes was performed amanti bravura to an applauding Londoner’
–I rather doubt that amanti bravura means anything at all in Italian or in English…
The way in which Moon finds Piers Hebron to have been a convert to Islam at the end of the story so that he must have been the intriguing sinner depicted in the mural Birkin has uncovered is all rather too neat: presumably it means This is the end of the story, you can go now. Which I imagine is why neither Birkin’s masterly mural nor Moon’s two discoveries have any consequences at all.
People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing round each corner fades.
Then there are some strange lapses of consistency. The month seems to last at least from the end of July to sometime in September. At the beginning, Birkin learns that his deceased funder herself cleared a patch of the painting; he worries about this, but then it’s never referred to again. At the beginning, Birkin also tells the Reverend J G Keach that he will need to use the stove in the church since he does not have his own, while later on he cooks on his own Primus. Alice Keach ends up referring to her husband as ‘Arthur’, which doesn’t sound very JG-ish.
Apparently this all came about because the author didn’t believe in proof-reading, and it’s unfortunate in a novella–especially such a good one–while forgetting what you’ve said in a novel is less likely to distract the reader.