Great books can create worlds in which the strange seems familiar, and the routine feels like new. When this is done well, as in Cynan Jones’ The Dig, we aren’t merely shocked or unsettled, we are inspired to view our own lives and relationships from other angles, to reconsider our triumphs and failures against a standard we may have never before imagined. Jones weaves together the stories of two rural Welshmen laboring during lambing season to evoke grief, hope, ambition, and revulsion in a way that feels both eerily familiar and utterly new.
Daniel has lived and worked on a sheep farm since he was born. His life has always conformed to the needs of his flock, until an abrupt, unbearable tragedy throws the routine rhythms of his daily life into chaos. Suddenly, the town and countryside that have nurtured Daniel and watched him grow into a capable man feel distant and foreign. When his mother comes for a consoling visit, she stirs echoes of past affection in his memories. Before long, she too seems out of place in his new reality. Daniel clings to his failing farm as an anchor against these shifting tides. He keeps vigil over his ewes and rams in an attempt to regain a semblance of significance when all else seems hopeless.
The other character at the heart of The Dig, most often referred to simply as “the big man,” roams the countryside around Daniel’s farm, and is locked in a much different type of conflict. The big man is a badger baiter which, for those unfamiliar with the term, means that he traps badgers to be pitted against dogs in brutal, illegal, underground fights. To accomplish this nefarious task, the big man tends his own kennel of fierce, but impeccably trained dogs. The big man lives to exert his mastery over nature at every turn. He is all but shunned by his community, and only tolerated for the services he provides. Even though Daniel and the big man have no real relationship—each is barely aware of the other’s existence—these two men orbit each other unconsciously, living, working and struggling in geographical proximity, but across a vast divide in character morality and lifestyle.
These characters are opposing, but equally magnetic forces. They each are intimately tied to, and utterly dependent on the land for survival. While The Dig is rooted in each man’s relationship with nature, it is no gentle pastoral novel. Though there are moments of transcendent beauty, there too are moments of tremendous, shocking violence. The harsh realities, and difficult life or death choices of farm life are handled by Jones with unblinking attention to detail. However, the violence is matter of fact, not indulgent. Jones does not wallow in the gore of badger baiting because it is amusing, but because it is a ghastly reflection of the men who are amused by perpetrating such horrors on the world.
Jones’ prose balances sparse, clipped phrasing with leaps of soaring narrative wonder to create a miniature epic of the routine, menial, and overlooked aspects of life in the country. For the characters in The Dig, unglamorous toil brings forth triumphs that are both minuscule and momentous against the backdrop of an unsympathetic world. I have never been a farmer, however when Daniel toils to save a breaching lamb, I was filled with serene determination to be able to to conquer such a crises. Likewise, while I have felt both love and loss, Daniel’s grief is uniquely his own. Every healthy lamb is a mundane miracle, a startling, wondrous, yet ultimately humdrum reminder that life persists with or without our most earnest, or sinister efforts.