By Cynan Jones
Coffee House Press, 2015
176 Pages, $11.66
Reviewed by Anne Kilfoyle
I am a sensitive person. I like animals and people, usually. I empathize whole-heartedly and am not unique among readers for being this way. Still, I have a strong stomach for violence, and I was drawn to The Dig because I heard it described as “gritty.” How apt. Never before have I had to stop reading only four pages in before thinking about whether or not I could continue after such a brutal introduction.
As a whole, the novel reads fast. Despite its brevity, or maybe because of it, the book asks a lot of the reader on a page-by-page basis. Grim, claustrophobic, and utterly effective, The Dig is Cynan Jones’s third novel and first to be published in the United States, by Coffee House Press. It is also a recent recipient of the 2014 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prized.
In The Dig, a Welsh sheep farmer named Daniel faces the challenges of foaling season. He is alone with the animals, grieving, and struggling to maintain a viable livelihood in an increasingly hostile industry. Circling ever closer to Daniel across Jones’s vivid rural landscape is a badger baiter. This man, unnamed but referred to as “the big man” throughout, approaches his grisly work with a potency and single-mindedness that contributes to the novel’s larger fatalistic atmosphere. As the interests of the two men creep closer to an intersection, the likelihood of a friendly resolution diminishes and confrontation is inevitable.
From the outset, Daniel is a tortured character, dealing with much greater adversity than he ever expected, and yet his challenges are grim and logical: life must find a way to go on. The big man provides a counterweight to Daniel’s struggle, offering an alternative, if somewhat paranoid, means of overcoming life’s obstacles.
Badger baiting is an uncommon business, and Jones does a neat job of getting the basics across with minimal exposition, as seen when the big man takes a farmer and his son out after a badger:
You could hear the barks moving through the ground now and they came alternately sharp and muffled until they seemed to regulate and come with a faraway percussive sound. The big man moved across the slope. He seemed to swirl in some eddy, then came to a halt, as if caught up on something. The big man moved again, listening, and the boy’s father tracked across with the locator until the two men stood in the same place, confirming the big man’s judgement. Here, he said. They brought up the tools and they started to dig.
The Dig’s conciseness is one of its most appealing features. The prose keeps elegantly out of its own way and allows the niche subject matter to keep us riveted. Where questions remain about the whys and hows of these men’s day-to-day is also where the story offers its greatest substance. On one hand there is the matter-of-factness demanded by rural life. On the other, an undeniable emotional response to the natural world. Toward the end of the novel, Daniel reconsiders his decision to remove a large shard of stone from his field:
He had been unable to sleep. He had come to believe that things had gone wrong because of the shard. That its removal had somehow upset a balance. He had lain in bed thinking of the vertebral spike of the malformed lamb, and that had brought him to this thought. He stood over the shard. He had given it animation and it still had some presence to him but it was like a dead animal there.
The Dig does a memorable job exploring each character’s answer to this dichotomy between function and meaning while quietly creating an environment in which nature has the final word. We are left with the unsettling suspicion that our options narrowed when we weren’t looking, and that for all of our tunneling there was only ever going to be one way out. If there is something to be said against the book it is this: what’s there left to believe in, if nature is indifferent and function reigns? The light is limited in these few pages.
There are a lot of new experiences waiting for readers in The Dig. It is a realistic and self-possessed story by Welsh author Cynan Jones that addresses the callousness of nature and the human impulse to find meaning even when our options are at their scarcest. Despite the violence in the first few pages, there is more to Jones’s writing than shock value. After the beginning—the most vicious part of the book—it gets easier. The Dig ultimately reveals a dark and richly textured story with impressive staying power.