REVIEW: The Dig by Cynan Jones
“Where he went he brought a sense of harmfulness and it was as if this was known even by the inanimate things about him.”
Early on in opening pages of Welsh writer, Cynan Jones’ American debut novella, The Dig, it becomes apparent that things in this tale will end badly for all characters involved. “The Big Man” as Jones’ antagonist is referred to throughout the text (we are never given a real name) looms large — as the great villains of regional-gothic novels tend to — in the back of the reader’s mind.
“The dog chain rattled like coins in some dark pocket.”
Jones’ sentences bristle with foreboding, evicting most semblances of characters’ internal emotions.
Told alternately from the Big Man’s perspective and that of a young sheep farmer named Daniel, and, at several points, in flashback, from the perspective of Daniel’s dead wife, The Dig is a vibrant, gripping story. Living in isolation somewhere in rural Wales, Daniel is preoccupied with the “lambing” of the farm’s new calves. He is also, we see, haunted by his wife’s death from an accidental, unpredictable horse kick to the head.
A Dig, we learn later, is an illegal badger hunt using terriers that are inserted into the tunnels of a badger hovel where the badger is trapped in its inner den until the hunters, using shovels, dig it out. The Big Man we are told is an expert in the procuration of Badgers, and searched out by rich, visiting men for this type of hunt. The Big Man’s cover, that of a rat exterminator for the local farm barns hides his true interest — the money he receives for supplying badgers to illegal badger versus dog fights.
In many ways, the young Jones, is the Welsh answer to the southern gothic of William Gay — obsessed with telling the stories that happen in the hidden, dark, underworld of backwater farming communities. Like the Undertaker in William Gay’s masterpiece Twilight, The Big Man hides the sadistic nature of his enterprise, and the evil coldness of his demented soul. Jones seems to be playing with the idea of the nature of man, of those who live closer in tune with the laws of nature than with those of humanity. The type of people who will run feral, murdering and pillaging, when the nuclear bombs finally fall.
At one point, as we race toward the final scene, Daniel discovers a pregnant sheep dying from her own dead and deformed lamb that cannot be breached naturally. “He broke through the bone and the head lolled and he made taut the apron of meats and veins to go through them until the head came off.”
But apart from the tragic plot and gothic themes it must be remarked on that Jones, like great poet-novelists, fills his book with beautiful sentences.
“A singular moth flutters in through the wind baffles to the naked bulb above the kettle, cuspid, a drifting piece of loose ash on the white filament, paper burnt up, caught in the rising current from some fire unseen, unfelt.”
The novella is a brisk read, clocking in at around 150 pages, and to an extent this is where it errs, if it errs at all. The final pivotal scene, taking place over just a few paragraphs, could have been much longer, much slower. Of course that is the difficulty of writing novels, knowing when to slow down, when to speed up, what to say and what to allow the reader to infer for herself.
At several points Jones also seems to hint, and miss, opportunities for exposition on larger societal themes. The Big Man says, hitting on an interesting point about the differences between the English and Welsh, “They took most of the trees out and he began to resent it. It was taking on what he considered an Englishness, a forced tidiness and management he did not like.”
In the future, and Jones has a bright future, it will be interesting to see what (and at what length) the author comes up with next.
by Cynan Jones