Cynan Jones has a light touch with painful and ugly truths, as illustrated in his latest novel, The Dig. At the heart of this short work set in rural Wales is the intense desire for an elusive harmony, for which the principal characters search in very different ways. The themes of The Dig are isolation and loss, and Jones quickly establishes a dark atmosphere by placing much of the action at night, either in the woods where a man traps badgers to sell for badger baiting, or on the nearby small farm where a young farmer is struggling on his own, stupefied by exhaustion, through the lambing season.
At only 150 pages, this is a brief work, but immensities of pain and personal history are expressed in short, terse paragraphs shifting between the badger’s sett and the lambing shed. The man, or the Big Man, as he is called throughout, deals in cruelty as a saleable commodity, while death shadows the efforts of Daniel, the farmer, to help his ewes to bring new life to his troubled farm. They have opposing goals, but these are both expressed through the metaphor of digging or intrusion: the man excavates sets while Daniel delves deep inside a sheep’s uterus for a creature that cannot, but must, be born.
Jones writes with passion about the landscape and wildlife of Wales, and in the Big Man he has created a poisonous and terrifying threat to a way of life he values. And yet in a twisted way the man also loves the land, knows it intimately and fears for himself the entrapment and torture he deals out to the badger.
The darkness is an active narrative force, hiding the unspeakable, suppressing voices, allowing complicity to emerge between the man and his helpers, drowning the farmer in numbing, relentless labour. This is a work full of metaphor and symbolism. There is a pervasive sense of a primitive, mythological past just under the surface in The Dig, and Daniel attributes the ‘wrongness’ into which his life has fallen, to interference with an ancient touchstone. At that moment of destruction, a palpable horror, in the shape of the man, appears through the mist like an uncanny spirit sent to blight Daniel’s world.
Cynan Jones’ first success was with The Long Dry, which won him a Betty Trask Award in 2007, and that work too was set on a small Welsh farm. The Dig, his third novel, is an accomplished and compelling work with the compression and economy of a short story. Sometimes the symbolism is predictable. The image of a bag concealing the trapped badger, for instance, is repeated in the bloody, membranous sac as a sheep strains to give birth, and in the sack containing a malformed lamb. Occasional excess of that sort is forgivable, though, because the language of the book is unsentimental and blunt, richly evoking sound and colour and a contrapuntal, nocturnal lack of colour. Jones combines words unexpectedly and uses an occasional mid-sentence absence of punctuation to support the sense of dazed confusion in which Daniel is living.
This is a challenging read and it delivers many punches, but Jones achieves something quite extraordinary in the process. We are clear about his views on the terrible sport of badger baiting. But we also see an almost tender understanding of human nature, taking us beyond stereotype into the mind of the Big Man, whose only sense of self is in his ability to control his dogs and manipulate his customers. Like Daniel, he is digging deep into aspects of himself to hide from his greatest fears.Despite its sometimes difficult subject matter, once you’ve started to read The Dig, you may well find you can’t opt out.