‘The Dig’ Cynan Jones

The-Dig

Fiction – hardcover; Granta; 160 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Visceral. Violent. Compelling. Those are the first three words that spring to mind when I think of Cynan JonesThe Dig, a muscular little novel that is so powerful as to be Herculean.

Set in a Welsh farming community, it could be described as a “rural novel”, but it’s not the bucolic countryside so often depicted in literature. This is nature red in tooth and claw. It feels earthy, rough, rugged — and realistic. Anyone who’s grown up on a farm or in a farming community will recognise the life and landscape depicted here, even if they might not recognise or be familiar with the illegal activities at the heart of the story.

Good vs evil?

The Dig pits two men against each other: Daniel is a sheep farmer; the other, who is referred to throughout as “the big man”, is a ratting man who keeps dogs for pest control.

The big man has a dubious, never-quite-explained criminal history (all we know is that he has firearms offences and a long-ago record for assault) and is currently involved in prohibited activities: he traps badgers, a protected species, for use in badger baiting. This is a cruel and illegal activity in which a badger is put in a pit with a dog and left to fight it out (usually resulting in the death of the badger) for the purposes of “entertainment” and gambling.

Jones’ descriptions of these activities are brutal and stomach-churning, leaving little to the imagination (the one that follows is relatively mild, but will give you an inkling):

The big man took the sack over and dumped it on the table which shook the badger into life so it scuffed on the table and rocked it. A can of beer went over to laughter as they held the table steady and then he punched the badger and it seemed to go still and there was a sense of immediate respect and dislike for him. It’s a big, heavy boar, he said. Then they tipped the badger into the pit.

But The Dig isn’t solely a bloodthirsty, vicious tale, however, because Jones carefully balances this aggressive narrative with a tender love story that shows us the farmer’s softer side. He’s a man who’s constantly holding his emotions in check, even though it’s clear he feels things deeply and his life has been marked by loss.

Beautiful prose

In my opinion, the real strength of the story is the prose style. It is immediate, stripped back, lyrical and, occasionally, hard-hitting, and often reminded me of the Irish writers I love so much. It’s something to do with the incisive way Jones has of getting to the heart of an emotion or a subject using a bare minimum of works in a rhythmic way — his sentences practically sing. And then, every so often, he crafts a sentence that also dances:

A singular moth flutters in through the wind baffles to the naked bulb above the kettle, cuspid, a drifting piece of loose ash on the white filament, paper burnt up, caught in the rising current from some fire unseen, unfelt.

The entire book is also brimful of beautiful descriptions of nature and the weather — in fact, if I underlined all the ones I admired, I’d end up defacing every second paragraph:

It was brewing to rain again, the sky bruising up and coming in from the sea.

An intense read

The Dig is an intense and immersive reading experience — on so many different levels: in its use of language, its characterisation and its depiction of rural life and crime. It is genuinely shocking in places, but it’s also heart-rending. There were times when it made me feel sick, occasionally I wanted to cry, mostly I felt my heartbeat escalating in fear of what was about to happen next.

It is dark and thrilling, definitely not for those with a weak disposition, and left a marked impression on me.  I have no doubt that even though it was the first book I read this year, I already know it will be in my Top 10 for 2015. I’ve already gone out and bought Cynan Jones‘ entire back catalogue…

To see what other bloggers thought of this novel, please see the reviews at Savidge Reads, Farm Lane Books Blog and Asylum.

UPDATE: Thanks to Mary Mayfield for pointing me to this great interview with the author on her blog.

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16 thoughts on “‘The Dig’ Cynan Jones

    • it reads very much like poetry in places… I had to slow myself down and read it properly to fully appreciate it. But from the first sentence I knew I was going to love this book and that I was in the hands of someone who really knows their craft and uses language in new and inventive ways.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I almost got this one under the mistaken impression that it was all about an archaeological dig (I’m an anthropologist by training and can’t resist the lure of fieldwork). The poetic prose is very tempting, I admit…

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    • The Dig of the title refers to digging up badger setts in order to catch the badger for baiting… so not quite archaeological 😉 And how fascinating that you’re an anthropologist by training… sounds wonderful!

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  2. Totally agree with you about the poetic prose, Kim. One to read aloud to yourself for the pleasure of it (the phrase “decayed bouquets” is still stuck in my head). A brutal book, but beautiful nonetheless.

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    • The cruelty is described in great detail, but it’s not gratuitous — it’s an important part of the story, I think. It’s worth feeling a little icky in places to read such powerful prose.

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  3. Intense is the word I’d use to describe this book. It was so intense that I’m not sure I enjoyed reading it. It is definitely a book to be admired, but those graphic descriptions continue to haunt me. Interesting to hear it will probably make your top 10 of 2015 though – you can stomach a lot more than I can!

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    • I do a lot of freelance work on “rural” magazines and have had to fact-check and edit copy that’s pretty graphic: the history of London’s ratting rings, for instance, was probably worse than this book in terms of gory details. And veterinary copy explaining diseases of working dogs and farm animals can be pretty revolting — perhaps I’ve just got used to it — though I usually put sticky notes over the horrible photographs of operations and bloody wounds etc. so I don’t have to look at them!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: ‘The Long Dry’ by Cynan Jones | Reading Matters

  5. Pingback: My favourite books of 2015 | Reading Matters

  6. Pingback: ‘Beastings’ by Benjamin Myers – Reading Matters

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