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What We’re Reading: The Dig

2015 May 14

What We're ReadingThe DigThe Dig by Cynan Jones (Coffee House Press, U.S. Edition, 2015)

In keeping with my Coffee House Press theme this week (see my two part discussion with CHP publisher Chris Fischbach and independent curator Sarah Schultz here and here), I read one of their recent releases: The Dig. It’s a dark and raw book, powerful in its short novella format.

The Dig follows two men in the countryside of Wales, one of whom is unnamed, and the other is a sheep farmer named Daniel. Daniel is silently grieving the sudden and violent death of his wife, juxtaposed with new life as he cares for his growing flock of sheep during lambing season. The unnamed man is a brutish man, who makes his living baiting badgers who he then pits against dogs in viscous illegal betting fights. Their two seemingly separate worlds parallel until they slowly begin to veer towards each other for violent collision at the end.

Some of the themes (life, death, violence) can feel a bit heavy-handed at times, but Jones moves on with such confidence that one hardly notices. In a novella like this, the themes have to be a bit more obvious as there isn’t as much time to spend slowly developing them.

The Dig‘s brevity makes it quick to digest, also partially in thanks to the nicely timed pacing throughout. It’s a muscular book, tackling both the brutality and raw vulnerability of life without wincing. Other reviewers and the back panel of the book compare Jones’ writing to Cormac McCarthy, which is apt. His writing is direct and unflinching, but lingers when it needs to, and alternately attacks when it needs to. Jones can deftly move from violence to the most intimate of moments, such as this one with Daniel thinking about his deceased wife:

He sat on the bales and let his eyes go round the shed. The sheep shifted into new comforts under the rain but there was nothing doing. The new lamb was drinking. He wondered what sort of a mother she would have made. They had talked about it, were ready for it. He pushed the thought away.

The cat scuttled in out of the weather and rubbed itself on the bales then went into the corner and settled itself and he felt a quiet transfer of love for the cat. His eyes filled with tears. He looked at the cat and held back the tears and felt himself smile desperately. Oh God, he said. You were so good. It was so good to have you.

The cat came up and sat with him, and for a while they sat like that, in the comfortable sound of the rain, and the closeness of the cat was almost too much.

It’s almost jarring how easily Jones can switch over to the brutality of the other man. I won’t excerpt the most disturbing sections, but here’s a glimpse, as men are holding down the badger to prepare it to fight:

The man on its back had knelt hard on it while it struggled and grunted and humphed underneath him and he seemed to get something carnal and delicious from that. There was a steady buzz. There was a bloody smell in the room now.

In his author statement, Jones addresses how he can look at such brutality close up, but also keep from pushing the reader too far: “There is a difference between voyeurism and witness. Compassion was key in balancing the book.” And he’s right. Despite the wholly terrible nature of the unnamed man, we see a tiny glimpse of something close to compassion in his pride of his favorite dog, and the pleasure he gets from the success of his business. These are only small glimpses in a very dark portrait of the man, but they somehow are enough to keep us reading through the disgust at his actions. Daniel, too, has a few moments of uncharacteristic anger in his otherwise passive world. Through these tiny holes that deviate to prevent the characters from being too archetypal, we see the complexity and unpredictability of nature.

What advantages do you think the novella form offers writers? Are there other books you’ve read that have made you cringe, yet balanced it enough to keep you reading?


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