The Dig – Cynan Jones

I have been pondering why it is that I am becoming a fan of shorter fiction more and more. I have heard many people saying shorter fiction is perfect for the social generation who find it very hard to concentrate on reading anything longer than a status update. There may be a modicum of truth in that I suppose, on occasion, yet when you read a book like Cynan Jones’ The Dig and undergo what is an incredibly visceral, earthy, upsetting (I cried and I heaved – seriously) and emotionally intense experience you wonder why any author bothers writing anything over 160 pages. Of course some short works do not come close to that experience and some long books are immersive wonders, you get my point though I am hoping.

Granta Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 156 pages, kindly sent by the lovely folk at Fiction Uncovered HQ

In The Dig we follow the lives of two men who live in the same remote countryside and who have met briefly once and who couldn’t be more different. Daniel is a farmer who is struggling both with keeping his farm profitable and running and also with a personal tragedy. I will not give away what because when you find out early on it is like a physical punch. I cried that is all I will say. The other character, who we only know as ‘the big man’ is a much darker kind of fellow; one who trains his dog to kill rats, catches badgers for baiting and has been to prison for something we are unsure of. The question is of course how and why might these two men meet up again?

The Dig is incredibly written. It consists of paragraphs that give us snapshots into both characters feelings, occasionally slipping us up as to who is narrating, meaning that both characters show their darker and lighter sides. I love books set in the countryside because behind the picturesque white fences and lace curtains, or down the back alleys and over the hills, there is a dark animalistic nature (pun not intended) to the countryside which is isolating, hard and dangerous. Jones depicts this beautifully, yet without ever getting flowery. This book is all about cold drips, muddy squelches, twigs cracking and fires crackling. Note – those are all my words just for illustration, Cynan has a much broader vocabulary than I.

The scent of her was in the room and it almost choked him to understand how vital to him this was; how he could never understand her need for his own smell, could not even understand howshe could find it on him under the animal smells, the carbolic, the tractor oil and bales and all the things he could pick out on his own hands. He had this idea of smells layering themselves over him, like paint on a stone wall, and again he has this sense of extraordinary resilient tiredness. He wondered what isolated, essential smell she found on him, knew the mammalian power of this from the way pups would stumble blindly to their mother’s teat, the way a ewe would butt a lamb that wasn’t hers. In the shock of birthing, all that first recognition would be in that smell. They would take the skin sometimes of a dead lamb and tie it on an orphan like a coat in the hope that the mother who had lost her lamb would accept and raise it as her own.

Now when I say the book looks at nature and humans in at its most raw, I am not kidding and it may be too much for some people. There’s blood, there’s badger baiting, there’s putting hands into sheep’s wombs (I wanted to say up sheeps bottoms to break the tension slightly and make you all chuckle, but that would be anatomically incorrect). Yet they are described naturally, frankly and without any sense of voyeurism or only writing to shock. Even the shocking parts have their importance within the novel be it the badger baiting (which made me cry, did I mention I cried quite a lot at this book) or some of the raw basic nature of the farming, one scene which lead me to heave as Daniel has to deal with a problem many farmers are sure to face in their career. They show another sense of duality that The Dig seems to have throughout. Here it is the acts of violence we humans can inflict upon nature and the acts of violence nature can inflict on itself and humans.

These dualities appear a lot in The Dig and I wondered if that was an intention of Jones’? From the start Daniel and the big man are polar opposites, Daniel being vulnerable and the big man being dangerous. Then we have the dualities of their thoughts and actions. The big man having some nasty thrill at watching his semi starved dogs killing rats or trapping badgers, yet constantly fearful of being trapped or caught out himself. Daniel is at the darkest depths of his emotions and yet he witnesses the amazing gift of new life with his animals. There is also the question of traps and not only the ones we set for others, or fall into, but the ones we create for ourselves. The beauty of nature vs. the brutality of nature. All this interwoven in a sparse swift book, it’s quite astounding.

It feels almost wrong to say I enjoyed The Dig, in fact at one point between weeping for the badgers and heaving at the bluntness of what I was reading I may have cursed Cynan Jones, yet at the end I was really thankful for the gut wrenching experience. (It also helped that I reminded myself that no badgers were actually harmed in the making of this book.) I think in many ways The Dig is something of a masterpiece. I have not read a book quite like it and certainly not one that in so few pages creates the essence of the countryside at its raw and wildest, the animalistic nature of, erm, nature and the fact that we humans are really nothing more than animals too. Oh and the inherent evil of horses.

The Dig was one of this year’s winners for Fiction Uncovered and once again proves why it is such a bloody marvellous initiative as it highlights such brilliant books. You can also see a fantastic spoiler free review here from Just William’s Luck and a brilliant one with a slight spoiler here at The Asylum, I have warned you of the spoiler. Who else has read The Dig and what did you make of it? Have any of your read his other novels The Long Dry or Everything I Found on the Beach, as I am now desperate to get them in the TBR.

4 Comments

Filed under Books of 2014, Fiction Uncovered, Granta Books, Review

4 responses to “The Dig – Cynan Jones

  1. Sonia

    Fantastic review, Simon! Your review has convinced me to make this my next read. However, I’m confused by the line “inherent evil of horses”. I’ve always loved horses and think they’re beautiful, gentle creatures. Of course, they can be dangerous but after all you are putting yourself at risk when you climb on top of and ride a giant animal that is easily scared.
    You can certainly have your own feelings about them, but I am simply curious about the reasons for your dislike of them.

    • Ha Sonia, I actually don’t dislike them that much. I just for some reason don’t like them in books and I cannot explain why. It’s like my dislike of boats in books. Odd aren’t I? It’s more an in joke to those who have read it and know my strange reading phobia.

      This book is marvellous. I really enjoy a book that encapsulates the brutal beauty and reality of nature and the countryside and this does just that.

  2. Just finished it and wanted to remind myself what you thought of this book. Having grown up in the countryside with lots of friends living on farms etc and then getting a lot of regular work freelance editing a magazine about rural matters/sport, this book perhaps didn’t shock me as much as you. But it is a very visceral read and is raw and real and there are scenes that are upsetting (the badger baiting was particularly horrific). It’s a gem of a book … I like what he does with language (the rhythm of the sentences, in particular) and the themes (which you’ve outlined in your review) that he explores. My favourite read of 2015… so far!

  3. Pingback: ‘The Dig’ Cynan Jones | Reading Matters

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