Flourishing like a flower of the field

This is my review of The Dig by Cynan Jones.

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.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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