I’ve set myself the challenge of reading a book a week for a year. I didn't expect it to be easy, but nor did I expect to stumble quite so quickly. And over a short book, too; a meagre 83 pages of a modern classic.
I thought I would get through A Month in the Country in no time, because the blurb suggested it was going to be just my sort of book. And let’s be honest — there’s a lot to be said for it. It’s beautifully written, it has an evocative setting. I could rip through that in a couple of days.
How wrong can you be? This slender volume, with all its plaudits (‘tender and elegant,’) took me a good two weeks of effort to read. The reason? Nothing happened.
I can outline the content of a book without a spoiler, because there’s nothing to spoil. In the aftermath of the First World War a traumatised ex-soldier goes to a Yorkshire village to uncover a medieval painting. He meets another ex-soldier, searching for a missing grave. He feels more at home with the Chapel folk than with those of the Church. He falls in love with the local vicar’s wife but never speaks of his feelings. We get a glimpse of the breakdown of his marriage.
But nothing happens. There is no plot.
As a writer, I sometimes struggle with plot. I spend too long setting things up, creating atmosphere, introducing my character. I’m often told that my stories start slowly but are worth persevering with (I take that as a compliment). There are endless pieces of advice on offer to writers new and old, and many of them focus on pace. If a scene doesn’t take the plot forward, we’re told, then lose it. If a character has a point of view then they must have a story. The protagonist(s) must be in a different place at the end of the story (in character development terms) to where they were at the beginning. And so on and so on.
Maybe as a society we’re getting impatient, but A Month in the Country reinforced the view that something needs to happen. It isn’t enough to write beautiful prose because even readers like me, who don’t feel they need a dead body every chapter and who actually enjoy a few pages of beautifully-written description to vary the pace of a story, feel cheated if they get to the end of the book and nothing has happened.
In the end I think I enjoyed A Month in the Country. I think I’d even recommend it. But not without a health warning: here is a book in which nothing happens. Or maybe I’m missing something…