The Dig

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

THE DIG introduces the work of the Welsh novelist Cynan Jones to readers in the USA. THE DIG is his fourth novel, actually, but Coffee House Press has released it first, with two others by the author to follow (The Long Dry and Everything I Found On the Beach).
THE DIG is a short, tight novel whose roots go deep into primordial earth. The action mostly takes place on a small sheep farm in Wales whose owner, Daniel, is battling against tough odds to keep the family legacy going. Diseased and malformed lambs, bureaucratic rules and regulations are just a few of the problems he faces, but they pale in comparison to the loss of his pregnant wife, which happened when they agreed to look after a horse for a needy friend.

“The horse was a placid horse but horses are great, instinctive animals and the mare seemed to have sensed the disquiet in her owner and was recently uncharacteristic,” Jones writes. The wife goes to curry her, stopping first to look back at the farm and “to think of what was inside her.” Then, “when she felt a great feeling of wealth and happiness go richly and simply through her...the horse kicked her.”

Her sudden and inexplicable death pains and haunts Daniel grievously, but he carries on alone somehow, not eating, doing the work of two, doggedly and stubbornly clinging to his patch of earth, his patrimony.

There’s another fight for survival in the book, this one waged by someone identified only as the Big Man: a gruff, powerfully built, cold-hearted human being who makes a living killing rats and trapping badgers. The latter enterprise is strictly illegal, if only because the badgers are put in a ring and expected to do battle against a pack of dogs. It’s the Welsh equivalent of a Mexican cockfight.

Slowly but inexorably Daniel and the Big Man–good and evil, if you will–-cross paths in the book (with the police popping up in between them). Jones’s stark tale takes on elemental power, becomes dark, merciless and unforgettable.