Cynan Jones: The Dig

For 2014, I’m going to try some shorter reviews, which I see as the only alternative to giving up this blog altogether (work, family, etc). They may therefore be a little sketchier than usual. By way of preface to this review (non-publishing geeks, skip this bit), the reason I read this book is that it was the last book bought for Granta by Philip Gwyn Jones. He is a man who has published many fascinating writers, from Keith Ridgway to Magnus Mills, Nicola Barker to Eleanor Catton, as a result of which I came to trust his judgement. He left Granta last year, after making it one of the most reliably interesting publishers in the UK.

Cynan Jones: The Dig

The Dig is a muscular, sinewy book. It is intensely physical and male: the only woman in it is dead and present solely in memories. Its seriousness, its attachment to the landscape and its language make Cormac McCarthy an obvious comparison, but it is entirely British (in fact Welsh) – perhaps it would be better to say that it reads like Cormac McCarthy meeting Ted Hughes down a dark country lane. (Perhaps it wouldn’t.)

It pits two men against one another, though they may not realise that they’re in opposition. Daniel is a young farmer whose wife died in a horrible accident: he is trying to carry on his commitment to the farm and his animals in the face of his grief. The other – unnamed, identified only as ‘the big man’ – is a poacher with a line in badger-baiting, fearful of being caught. Fear is a driver in the book – Daniel fears the big man, the big man fears the police – and in the book men generally are reduced to atavism, stripped of reason.

Their daily lives contrast as we read them in alternating scenes – Daniel caring for his sheep, birthing lambs, while the big man attempts to conceal the marks on a dead badger that will betray the bloodsport (“A little way down the road he turned round and came back and drove over the badger. Then he turned round and did it again.” And then “ground his foot down on the leg, and stamped over and over…”). The two men meet once, when Daniel is having removed from his land a large metal object referred to as ‘the shard’ – “a piece of lightning solidified there” – and the shard takes on an air of sinister mystery, an ominous agency like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Daniel feels “as if it had conjured” the big man.

I mentioned the language of The Dig earlier, and it is worth exploring. It is mostly blunt and plain, particularly when the brutal attacks on the badgers are being described (“Then they held up its head and held its jaw open with a jemmy and smashed the front teeth”), and the blankness of the descriptions only forces more power and emotion into the reading. Jones is fond of (yes) McCarthyesque strings of conjunctions:

He shifted the bunched carrier bags and the cleaning stuff and the shoe polish and dustpan and brush and box of nuts and hinges and screws and found an empty jar under the sink and opened it and smelled it and it had no smell and he smelled only the lanolin and straw and always the undertone of cattle on his hands.

The metaphors are carefully limited, in keeping with the characters’ experiences and knowledge, and in keeping with the sober tone (“when he got from the van it lifted and relaxed like a child relieved of the momentary fear of being hit”), and there is a semi-articulate quality to the words used through the men’s eyes, with a particular fondness for homemade nouns: Christmasness, surgicalness, automaticness. Among this we get an odd poetry – or poeticalness – which is not quite biblical but archaic: “all of these things of life awatered,” “that this thing is of purpose utmost.” All of this comes together to aid the seriousness of the telling. It works because the style is so intently pursued: one degree less, one percent more dilute, and it could cross the line into comedy.

Part of The Dig was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award in 2013.  I read it at the time, along with the other shortlisted stories, and didn’t think it especially impressive. Here, in context, it makes sense, though it is still possible to see how it can stand alone (it forms Part 2 of the novel, concerning the big man and his son, and doesn’t explicitly refer to other parts of the book). Altogether The Dig is nasty, brutish and short, and thoroughly memorable. It ends horribly and inevitably, leaving marks in the brain that no amount of stamping or driving will easily erase.


  1. Sounds interesting, and similar in some ways to his previous, very good book “The Long Dry” (set on a farm, shadowed by tragedy, etc.). “The Long Dry” has a strange, almost nihilistic twist halfway through that I still think about often.

  2. Have you read Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing? This review reminded me slightly of that.

    I have a copy of this funnily enough. Nice to see you review it as I picked it up rather on spec.

    Nice quote illustrating the point on metaphors.

  3. I just finished this, having read it in one excruciating sitting. Excruciating because of how deeply it forces you to experience Daniel and the big man’s world on the one hand, to dwell on it, and how terrible and painful that world is for both of them. I thought it was quite excellent! Your comparison to McCarthy is striking, because I was thinking myself of how strongly it reminded me of passages from The Road, which mix together bold primal conjunctions with a biblical cadence or rhythm. I’m very interested to read more Cynan Jones now.

  4. Please don’t stop blogging John Self. Really, you are one of the very best on here and even though I don’t always agree with you, your reviews are always intelligent, which is something lacking from much internet stuff. If I had my way you’d be posting a lot more often, but i suppose you have to have a life.

  5. Thanks for your kind words, catamite. I have no intention of ‘retiring’, but it’s hard to find time to sit down and write these days. I’m reading quite a bit at the moment that I don’t write about, but there are lots of books coming up that I’m interested in, including Deborah Levy and Clarice Lispector reissues, and new books from Damon Galgut and Adam Foulds. So I hope to be able to review at least some of those.

    Max, no I haven’t read Evie Wyld, despite All the Birds, Singing being recommended last year to me perhaps more than any other book. I will … eventually.

  6. Just finished reading this book and wanted to see what you thought. The rhythm of the sentences reminded me very much of Irish writing, as did the dark side of rural life, so am intrigued that you thought it reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, whom I’ve not read, so now wondering if I should try his work…

    I thought The Dig was exceptionally powerful and incredibly emotional… my read of the year… so far 😉

    1. Kim, I think you should try McCarthy. The Road is probably his most immediate and accessible book, but it’s not very representative. I have a review of Child of God on this blog somewhere, and I’m told that his masterpiece is Blood Meridian, though I haven’t read it yet.

      1. I’ve read The Road and really liked it, but got put off exploring his backlist because I’d been told it was very bloody and violent… but maybe I’ll go visit the library, which is always good for trying books I’m not sure I actually want to buy.

        By the way, I’m not sure how long your new design has been up (I always read your blog on my phone as the mobile version but I’m using a desktop computer today) but I like it a lot. Love the font and the colours.

  7. I read and loved the Dig, despite its darkness, last year and have only found my way here through kimbofo’s recent review. Oddly what sticks in my mind after this time is the beauty and love of the land, rather than the violence. In case you’re interested, here’s my interview with Cynan Jones talking about The Dig,badger baiting and not twisting the story to get a ‘happy’ ending

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