The Dig is a perfect novella: excruciatingly brutal and extraordinarily beautiful at the same time, it is a book you will read in a single sitting.
Daniel is a farmer smack in the middle of the lambing season in Wales, attempting to cope on his own following the shock death of his young wife weeks earlier.
The badger baiter is an ex con, as wild as the animals he hunts, tortures and kills with sickening relish – badger, fox, rat – and the anti thesis of Daniel.
It is inevitable their paths will collide in a landscape torn from the pages of Ted Hughes’s Moortown Diary. Almost every death is a violent one and yet Jones dilutes the oppressiveness with a clinical style which is detached but not uninvolved.
There hasn’t been a chronicler of the vicissitudes of the underbelly of country life across the water since the death of Hughes, a writer of fiction who isn’t afraid to look at the natural world through a glass darkly, somebody who can take a chainsaw to our perceptions of country living and depict a whirlwind of carnage and violence as if conducted by Medea. Cynan Jones fits the bill.
The world of The Dig is utterly violent and relentlessly cruel: a dead lamb is decapitated with a saw before it can be removed from its mother, and captured large badgers are sadistically de-clawed with a pliers to minimise injury to the lurchers who fight them.
Some of the passages – the torture inflicted on the unfortunate badgers – are not for the faint hearted, but the story is easily elevated by the brevity and directness of the prose.
No word is unemployed. Violence is omnipresent and as such, inescapable. It is a dark story which never seeks to emerge from its sepulchral tone. Beauty has the shelf life of a lamb dying in a box shoved into an Aga.
There is no sense that the land was once idyllic, is ever anything but a battleground between man and nature. While Daniel, despite his grief, retains empathy for creatures struggling to live, he is viewed by the badger baiter as weak.
The novel dovetails to an unsurprising crescendo but with commendable skill by Jones who augments the pace and the countdown to what you assume will be a bloody reckoning with concise and sharp sentences.
Jones’ characterisation of the two main characters, Daniel and the badger-baiter, is precise and whole: we walk in the wake of every step they take in the bloody fields. However, his earlier portrayal of bereavement is acute and sensitive and is essential in painting a three dimensional portrait of Daniel, the tragic sadness of whom permeates the story.
It is a short book, about 160 pages, but it is a simmering tour de force, an exceptional insight into a dystopian rural hell. It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet or Tarka the Otter it isn’t.