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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A novel of masculinity in crisis, 16 Feb. 2014
This review is from: The Dig (Hardcover)
'The Dig' is Cynan Jones' second novel, and the first published by Granta, his earlier writing being published by the Welsh press Seren. Jones' excellence has been a known quantity in Wales for some time; now the author is receiving the national attention he deserved but hardly received for 'The Long Dry' and his first novel, 'Everything I Found On the Beach'. Does 'The Dig' justify his move to a larger publisher? With minor reservations, the answer is 'yes'.

Jones' real subject, as in his first novel, is modern masculinity and the relation between man and place. He is the rare contemporary writer who is accurate and unapologetic about the character of ordinary maleness, an unfashionable subject now for decades. This makes his voice refreshing among his contemporaries, although his subject is an old one. His two novels speak directly concerning the difficult situation of men in a society that seems to have diminishingly little use for male virtues and masculine values, but continues to lay on them burdens of expectation stemming from traditional male roles that now exist only on the ragged economic fringes of modern Britain.

In 'The Dig' Jones offers linked portraits of men struggling with what it is to be a man. The farmer Daniel, having lost his wife to an accident, is trying to cope alone with his grief and with the inhuman demands of lambing season. The unnamed 'big man', a loner involved in illegal hunting and pitting of badgers, seems at first Daniel's polar opposite: a focus for the dark, destructive forces of rurality, as Daniel is a nurturer. But this is not a simple antithesis. It is the strength of this short, intense novel that Jones binds these two intensely realised men together in a way that allows the reader at last to see that each in his way is a victim of forces more powerful than individuals; forces that are in the process of corrupting the succeeding generation even as the older men go down.

The book has been reviewed as though it were transparently the best thing that Jones has written. I would qualify this only by saying that 'The Dig' is no more impressive than the largely ignored 'Everything I Found On the Beach', which treats many of the same themes from a different angle.

'The Dig' is a powerful vision that occasionally teeters on the edge of melodrama. In general, Jones has created a way of describing things and people that is as straightforward as a mattock, but that has the exact fitness for purpose of any well-made tool. The result is an hallucinatory existential clarity in which quite ordinary things are seen as though for the first time. (Comparisons with Hemingway's early short stories are not entirely misplaced, though Jones lacks the American's sentimentality.) Occasionally, the pressure of feeling behind the words drives them past their limits, and the reader feels a twinge of uneasiness; but Jones always pulls us back from the lip of empty lyricism into the concrete world of his characters, in which smell, touch and hearing are almost more important than sight, and certainly more important than speech.

Because Jones is writing about a world – the small agricultural communities of West Wales – of which most readers will have no direct experience, and a way of life that has been foreign to most British people for generations, there will be a temptation to dismiss this writing as a provincial oddity; fascinating in its exotic detail, perhaps, but ultimately of no relevance to our overwhelmingly urban and thoroughly mediated lives. That temptation should be resisted. Jones is a sophisticated writer and a powerful stylist. He has chosen to attack head-on contemporary themes that others have ignored, and to deal without ironic distance with ungovernable and even unavowable emotions. In this and his other writings he demonstrates also an admirable concision that contrasts markedly with the flabby excesses of much modern fiction. This is a short book with no wasted words.

'The Dig' is a genuine and serious achievement. It is unlikely to leave the reader indifferent. I hope it sends many back to Jones' other books, to see what they have missed.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 1 Apr 2014 23:58:09 BDT
Last edited by the author on 2 Apr 2014 00:07:15 BDT
G. L. Davies says:
Agree with the sentiment, especially that we in Wales have known about Cynan's talent a long time, and that it is slightly annoying that he is only now getting his full credit, once he was published by a London press, Granta (apart from the ever astute - and Welsh - Sarah Waters who made The Long Dry her personal pick in a Guardian summer Reviews special). Why won't UK books editors recognise that the publishers of Wales are at the cutting edge of talent, and that there is a lot of talent among our writers, especially those writing on rural themes? They don't need to wait all those years for a London agent or press to pick off our authors - just keep in touch via our vibrant literary magazines and book publishing scene. Just to add a correction, though: all of Cynan Jones' earlier titles came out with Parthian, apart from his latest, *Blood, Bird, Snow*, an adaptation of the myth of Peredur (with a dash of Don Quixote), which was indeed published by Seren. On reflection, I like *Blood, Bird, Snow* best of all Cynan's titles, because of its humour and the risks it takes with form.

Posted on 2 Apr 2014 00:30:43 BDT
G. L. Davies says:
Something deeper than a plaint about contemporary agrarian society is going on here, at the level of history and nationhood: linguistic and geographical references to earlier times, possibly Iron Age or even druidic (the inscription on the shard; the mound ringed by holly where the last badger dig takes place) linking to the Christian image of the ailing lamb akin to sacrifice; the distorted English tattoo badging (sorry!) one of the Midlanders at the final dig scene. More and more, Cynan Jones reminds me of the Welsh-language bestselling author, Caryl Lewis (Martha, Jac & Sianco, The Jeweller). I've heard Lewis pay homage to Thomas Hardy often, whereas Jones cites Cormac Mccarthy. This, along with the fact that only one of Lewis' novels to date have appeared in English, and that Jones' new publisher is the London-based Granta, would explain Lewis' absence of profile in the UK press. Things can change quickly though, and my main point is: we have a lot of very talented prose writers in Wales, especially those writing on rural themes.

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Apr 2014 11:30:49 BDT
Paul Bowes says:
An interesting response - thanks for this. No doubt there are levels to the book that would be more apparent to a Welsh reader. The archaic allusions put me in mind of an older tradition of writing that is perhaps Celtic rather than specifically Welsh, but it's quite subtly handled.

I'm afraid many Welsh writers are under-appreciated outside Wales. British publishing is as dominated by London as is French by Paris.

Posted on 14 Sep 2014 18:43:47 BDT
An interesting review of an intense and affecting novel that suffers only from being a little too indebted to McCarthy. But I don't see why the book should be seen as a 'provincial oddity' (Badger culls are front page news; what's more Daniel farms sheep in Wales - it's hardly basket weaving in outer Transnistria). And surely most readers still want to be taken to worlds other than their own? As long as the themes of a book resonate and the lives described have the compelling quality of those in 'The Dig', then readers will respond. Evie Wyld, for example, has done well with 'All the Birds, singing' set mostly on a sheep farm on a remote Scottish island. And yes, it's got a detective in it, which may sweeten the pill somewhat, but Peter May's Isle-of-Lewis-set Blackhouse series with its long descriptions of guga bird hunting is popular and just been snapped up by the BBC.

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Sep 2014 14:17:41 BDT
Paul Bowes says:
I admire McCarthy, and although Jones has admitted to his influence I don't find it obtrusive. As for the point about 'provincial oddity': well, although English, I live in Wales, and I can assure you that Welsh authors are well used to their work receiving little or no serious attention outside Wales itself, regardless of quality. Perhaps publishing with Granta will change this for Cynan Jones.
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Location: Wales, United Kingdom

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