The Dig by Cynan Jones

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Reviewed by Victoria Hoyle

Cynan Jones’ third novel The Dig was high on my list of anticipated releases in early 2014, bought as soon as it came out in January.  It was a fitting month for it to appear, at the icy turn of the year.  It’s a winter book: short, brutal, bloody and uncompromising; chilly and haunting and disconcertingly raw.  All these things, and wonderful.

It weaves together two brief, stark narrative threads.  One belongs to the nameless ‘big man’ who presides over the violent senseless deaths of badgers that he catches for baiting.  The other is Daniel’s, a recently bereaved sheep farmer.  It is lambing time and the Welsh valleys are pin-pricked with lights in barns and sheds, as people sit all-night vigils over their flocks ‘in isolated private intimacy ‘.  As Daniel watches new lives arriving, the big man uses the cover of darkness to get rid of badger remains, posing them on country roads and then ramming over them with his van to conceal wounds caused by dogs and restraints.

This is how the book begins, sickening and unflinching.

He kicked the badger round a little to unstiffen it.  He kicked the head out so it lay exposed across the road.  Its top lip was in a snarl and looked exaggerated and some of the teeth were smashed above the lower jaw, hanging loose where they had broken it with a spade to give the dogs a chance.

They hadn’t had the ground to dig a pit so they had fastened the badger to a tree to let the lurchers at it and the hind leg was skinned and deeply wire-cut.  That could be a problem, he thought.  That could be a giveaway… He thought about tearing off the leg.  Ag, I wouldn’t get it, he thought. I wouldn’t get that off.

Bitch, he said: then he ground his foot down on the leg, and stamped over and over, smashing the thin precise line of the wire out of the raw flesh.

The big man is a threat, an embodiment and promise of violence; even the inanimate things around him ‘feared him somehow’.  Dig is tense and horrific whenever he is on the page, almost like the novel is preparing itself (and the reader) for a beating.  Reading his sections – as he gases rats, digs for badgers, hides guns under his bath – was a mental slap.  I held the book a bit further away but couldn’t stop reading. 

Daniel couldn’t be more opposite. Violence is done to him rather than by him, although not directly.  He has just lost his pregnant wife in a freak accident, her head kicked in by a panicked horse, and now he is desperately working his farm alone.  The shifts in the lambing shed, previously shared, are merged into one long unending blur.  He feels his dead wife all around him, present in the tokens of her left behind. Her boots and waterproofs sat next to his in the doorway; a handkerchief lost during the last harvest and found amongst the sheep feed; her smell in the bedroom.  In some ways being immersed in his grief – his ‘massive devastation‘ – is as extreme and traumatic a reading experience as being subjected to the big man’s brutality.  The Dig ranges across the full register of discomfort.

Cynan Jone’s prose is mostly precise and uncompromising, but occasionally grows biblical in its cadences.  It’s barely a couple of hours of reading but I strung it out over the weekend because it demands attention word by word.   You could pass over some startling writing if you rushed it:

Around the field crows were turning over the dung and taking up the worms.  They made a strange black contrast to the fresh white lambs.  Even in their adjutant walking they contrasted.  He stood holding the barrow.  The hedges were not yet beginning to green up.  It was as if there was a holding back to them.  The ewes cried ritually and the lambs bleated back and now and then came in from play and pushed roughly as their mothers, their tails frenzied as they drank, and here and there were lambs sleeping in their mothers’ lee, folded up and cat-like.

Adjutant walking.  The ritual cries of the ewes. The hedges holding back. You can see why Jones’ has been called the Welsh Cormac McCarthy. He writes about the meeting of the natural world and the world of men as a mystical confluence of malevolence and great beauty.

The land itself is a character, brooding and grieving.  Daniel becomes obsessed with the idea that his tragedy began when ditching work removed a metal shard from one of his fields.  It had been there as long as anyone remembered and has acquired the presence of a shrine or a totem.  Removing it has disturbed the order of things, releases some malicious influence with the big man as its emissary. 

Cynan Jones’ won a Betty Trask Award for his first novel, The Long Dry, and has written an instalment in Seren Books New Stories of the Mabinogion called Bird, Blood, Snow.  I’m really eager to read both of these now, and his second novel Everything I Found on the Beach too.  The Dig is already a contender for my best of 2014 list.  It’s tough reading, but incredibly powerful by the end, one of those alchemical novels that changes the parts of you that it touches.

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Victoria Hoyle blogs at Eves Alexandria

Cynan Jones, The Dig (Granta, 2014), 156 pages.

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