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