on 13 November 2015
Much like the setting of this story, this book is dark and moody, and I'm not going to lie, it's a little depressing too. Yet somehow Jones not only makes the telling of it bearable, he also manages to ease the gloom over you so tightly that you begin to get transfixed by the landscape, and almost feel at home in its bleakness. Now that might not sound like much fun, but fiction is the vessel to transport us to places we could never imagine, and even if we are not too comfortable in those places, if the story is told with just the right amount of skill, we never leave without having grown. And all good stories leave their mark, and Jones manages to do that over a very brief canvas. I've read countless novels of great length, only to wish that they had had more brevity, and this certainly delivers a strong punch from a small fist.
The story itself is about the interlocking fate of two characters that exist on the same dark landscape, like two trees withering out the same storm. However it soon becomes clear that both of the central characters of Daniel, and the Big Man, are very different from each other. One certainly fits the role of protagonist, and the other is definitely an antagonist. Jones certainly gives us plenty of sinister undertones in the scenes with the Big Man, and the world itself seems much darker and twisted through his eyes, but although Daniel has lost his wife to a tragic and graphic accident of nature, his passages are imbued with a more moving style more akin to poetry than prose, even in the scenes that involve the difficult visions that spring from the terrible event that ended his wife's life. I can only assume that this was a conscious decision by the author, and it works to great effect.
So I strongly recommend this book, as though it certainly is a brief read, it has very strong and well portrayed characters that are brought to life by Jones' skilful hand, and the story is at times so tragic, you can't help but be changed by it, and in the end feel that you yourself have walked through that country, and felt the darkness that rides over it like a circling wind.
This remarkable novel is set in a remote Welsh farm. The opening describes the brutal finishing off of a badger that has been ripped to shreds by the terriers of the unnamed 'big man'. He seems to derive a sadistic pleasure in his terriers' mutilation of the badger and with his own boot skull-cracking, then running over the animal in the road to make it look like a traffic accident. He is an unscrupulous badger digger who is handsomely paid for bringing townies in for the dig and selling them to be tortured in private fights with dogs in the company of a paying, betting audience. This cruel illicit 'sport' is graphically described by Cynan Jones without sparing any of the gruesome details.
He lives nearby Daniel, an exhausted farmer in the lambing season, struggling financially and trying to cope with the sudden traumatic death of his wife three weeks earlier. He is in denial as he constantly feels her presence and says 'I can hold onto her. I can hold on to her inside'. Working alone, not eating or sleeping, he is more at home in the sheep shed filled with lambing ewes he finds 'maternal and quiet' as opposed to the house where he fantasises his wife is still in bed. He frequently recalls his life with her on the farm in a way that she is still with him. He delivers a malformed lamb and cannot take his father's advice when he was farming that sometimes a decision has to be made between a quick misery or a slow misery. Daniel is unable to choose. He later has no choice with a ewe that would die without swift action from Daniel.
As a boy, Daniel accompanies his father on his first dig, watching the cruelty of flushing out a dazed badger and the blooded, wounded, exhausted terriers sent into the sett. Daniel loves the farm and the surrounding farm scenery, strikingly described by Jones in beautiful, economical prose. Daniel and the big man only meet a few times. Both are at one with the land albeit in different ways and the outcome of their meetings can only end in one way as the 'big man' advances on a Sett on Daniel's farm thinking he is away. Their characters are well-drawn and very realistic.
Cynan Jones has written a powerful, intense and evocative novel of a way of life that has an immediate and lasting impression on the reader. Brilliant.
on 29 April 2014
This short novel took my breath away.
Daniel, a sheep farmer, recently and tragically widowed, somehow ploughs on with his solitary life. Much of his time is spent in the lambing shed where he witnesses and is involved with the most basic processes of life and death. Exhausted by grief and on automatic pilot, he reflects on his marriage and the wife he's lost. At the same time, 'the big man', is busy securing live badgers for baiting. He is ruthless, pitiless and inured to the suffering he's heaping on these creatures. The only chink in his emotional armour seems to be his dogs. Inevitably Daniel and 'the bib man's' paths cross.
In this simple but devastating story, Cynan Jones once again shows his total mastery of language and total understanding of the harsh realities of rural life. It's brutal, visceral and never sentimental. And SO TRUTHFUL. Read it. In fact read everything he's written because his is an extraordinary talent
on 15 January 2014
Finished 'The Dig' last night and just wanted write to say how astonishing I thought it was. It has stayed with me all day, nagging like a half-forgotten but always present thought. The control and sheer pathos of the first section moved me to tears and I found myself holding my breath at times. The language and particularly the modal verb use is so powerful; indeed daring in a way that I never encountered. I loved the raw power of the characters; and the bravery of the ending is a triumph.
on 19 February 2015
I had read other reviews that spoke of poetry despite, or perhaps through horror, and was dubious about buying this book, but the reviewers are right, this book is brutal in parts and really not for the squeamish or the sentimental, but it is "true" in Keat's sense when he said "beauty is truth". This book describes some of the darkest among the many realities of the countryside, seen through the eyes of a recently widowed farmer, contrasted with the unfeeling world of a badger-baiter and breeder of fighting dogs. Yes, many of the scenes make for very uncomfortable and distressing reading. It is a harsh world, but there is an elegiac beauty in that harshness, in the relationship of the farmer with the realities of the cycles of life in his lonely world. There are echoes of Cormac Macarthy and perhaps even of Hardy, if you're looking for comparisons, but I don't think this book should be judged in relation to any other author. It is unique, powerful, often runs like poetry, and the atmosphere evoked stays long afterwards. Masterly.
Daniel, a decent, gentle young man with a deep love of the Welsh countryside where he grew up, is exhausted not only by the effort of running an isolated sheep farm, but also by his unsuccessful struggle to come to terms with a personal tragedy. “The big man” strikes fear in everyone he meets, prison being the only thing he dreads. His love is reserved for his dog Messie a vital assistant for his obsession with flushing out badgers for a sinister purpose which gradually becomes clear. The contrast between the two men is shown by their reactions to the digging up of the mysterious metal shard, which Daniel invests with mythical properties, “a piece of lightning solidified there”, whereas the big man values it only as a source of scrap. This short, intense novel seems to be working towards an unpredictable confrontation between these two men, the anticipation of which makes the book a page-turner, despite its slow pace, detailed descriptions and few events.
Yet I knew that it was vital to read slowly, to absorb every phrase, for what makes this book remarkable is the style which is like a sustained prose poem. There are striking images of fleeting thoughts, the weather, wildlife as well as darker scenes – perhaps sometimes unduly brutal or bleak – involving problems over the delivery of lambs, or the baiting of badgers.
Cynan Jones makes us think about the minute aspects of daily life: the shoes with the backs worn down because Daniel has never bothered to put them on properly which “ at first… looked comfortable and loved, but actually they had the unfulfilled imbalance of things which had not been used to their fullness”. Or the importance and complexity of sounds for Daniel in a quiet landscape: “how in this prehensile night there could come the illusion of the sea nearby….the wind coming over the trees then dropping through the hedges …… with the distant noise of waves breaking and running….such… that he could not be sure this wasn’t the sound of the shifting tides carried from the coast that was dropped away out of sight a few miles off.” Or simply: “It was brewing to rain again, the sky bruising up and coming in from the sea”.
Although less sensitive, the big man also knows the country well: at night, when he was up to no good, “it was a time of mixed certainty for him, with… people awake at night, but they were also busier and distracted and with that general busyness disregarded noises more readily, accepting them as the product of another’s work.”
Some sentences seem too contrived like “I’ll give it four hours, he thought, attritionally” but you could argue this is both original and an example of poetical experimentation which cannot “work” every time for all readers.
I would give this book five stars without reservation if were not for the ending, which is disappointing in seeming sketchy, underdeveloped and, as another reviewer has commented, too “rushed”. Yet, plot is clearly not the author’s main concern.
on 7 July 2016
This novella about a Welsh farmer and a poacher who digs badgers out of setts to pit them in illegal fights against dogs is more of a sketch than a full story. The characters are outlines rather than full portrayals and the writer pares his words to the bone.
The poacher does not even have a name but there is a menacing violence every time he appears. There are memorable descriptions of the cruelty inflicted on animals by man – the killings of rats, mink and badgers – and nature too – the suffering endured by a ewe giving birth and the farmer himself as he tries to free the trapped lamb.
My main complaint is that it ended too abruptly after a fine build-up. Overall, the book is bleak and stark and will not appeal to everyone.
'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.
on 11 January 2014
It's very small, but never slight. It's about digging for badgers, badger baiting, the easy cruelty of man on beast. And yet its also about loss and love and kindness and a connection to nature. It's very Welsh. It's totally extraordinary. Please read it.
on 21 January 2014
The Dig is the highly emotional, often very troubling story of two very different men: Daniel is a struggling, recently bereaved farmer who carefully nurtures the lives of the lambs that he rears while Ag (not his real name but perhaps the most appropriate choice) is troubled man who captures and facilitates the torture of badgers for the amusement of others. The two men live close to each other in an unnamed rural area of Wales and their disparate lives have set them on a collision course with one another that can only end in tragedy. There is a timeless quality to The Dig for all its brutality as it is ultimately the story of the relationships, both positive and negative, that men have had with the land since the dawn of time. While there are nods to modernity and to the difficulties that people who choose to make their living from the land have nowadays, many of the struggles facing Daniel and Ag have been in existence seemingly forever. The Dig is an intense, impressive novel about the hardness, undeniable beauty and occasional cruelty of modern life in the countryside.