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The Dig, by Cynan Jones, Granta, RRP£12.99, 176 pages
It’s easy to admire big novels – all those words! All those characters and plot lines! – and to assume that the more pages in a book, the more impressive an achievement it is; it might even be better value for money. After all, the 2013 Man Booker prize was awarded to Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries, an 800-plus-page tour de force of fiendish internal complexity and arcane structure. So you might be forgiven for overlooking a short, gnomic novel set in rural Wales and featuring only two main characters. But you would be making a great mistake.
Cynan Jones’s fourth novel, The Dig, is an extraordinarily powerful work – not in spite of its brevity but because of it. More words would either have diluted its force or proved overwhelming, because the pitch it exists at is very hard to sustain – for writer and reader alike.
The Dig tells the intertwined stories of Daniel, a Welsh sheep farmer, and an unnamed local man – a cipher, an instrument in the mysterious and terrible mould of Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian – who goes after badgers with dogs and spades, for sport and out of compulsion. Both men derive identity and purpose from the place in which they were born, and the dominion they have over living things; both are wrestling with changes to the way in which land is managed, as well as individuals’ relationship with nature governed and controlled. Both are damaged – to say any more would be to spoil one of the book’s earliest and cleverest surprises – and are brought into inevitable and heart-stopping conflict not through the pulling of puppet strings but by the logic of their own characters.
It is the simplest of stories, yet to pull it off requires enormous narrative control, as well as the courage not to fill in every last particular. Word has it that Jones originally completed a much longer manuscript, then stripped it of unnecessary detail and backstory. If so, he’s an enormously brave writer, and one whose bravery was warranted. The result is both strong and stark, like the carcass of an animal flayed of meat: still the animal, still holding its shape, but pared right back to bone and sinew.
Having said that, Jones does not shy away from detail when it’s necessary – another kind of bravery. While The Dig is beautifully written, parts of it are also very difficult to read. Take, for example, a dead badger’s nose “loose and bloodied, hanging from a sock of skin”; a live one, being baited in the pit of an old garage once used to repair buses, having its claws torn out with fencing pliers.
You may ask why you would choose to read such a thing, or why a writer would choose to describe it. The answer, in both cases, is this: because it is true. To shy away, at that point, from the reality of such acts of cruelty – acts that still go on and in fact may be on the increase – would be to bowdlerise a truth that we should throw light on: man’s capacity to inflict, as well as endure, suffering.
And yet this necessary and central brutality is more than redeemed by the transcendent quality of Jones’s writing. There are definite echoes of Cormac McCarthy in its chiming repetitions, rolling, balanced syntax and biblical language – but that’s not to say that The Dig is in any way derivative; far from it. In its marriage of profound lyricism and feeling for place, deep human compassion and unflinching savagery, this brief and beautiful novel is utterly unique.
Melissa Harrison is author of ‘Clay’ (Bloomsbury)