The Dig by Cynan Jones

On 14th May the Reading Wales book group met to discuss The Dig by Cynan Jones. The book juxtaposes the stories of a farmer during the lambing season and a badger baiter. Jones describes himself as a ‘writer of short novels’ and although The Dig is categorised as a novel, the book isn’t driven forward by a conventional narrative. One of our members described the book as a prose poem, but whatever genre you decide to assign to it, the greatest achievement of the book is its style and tone. In terms of style, Cynan Jones has been compared to Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy.

Jones manages to, very sensitively, juxtapose the brutality of the badger baiting with the tenderness and poignancy of the farmer Daniel taking care of his sheep. It is precisely this beauty and brutality set side by side, which in the world of the book also take place in close proximity to each other that has such a strong effect. The book group particularly liked the descriptive writing associated with farming and the fact that the descriptions of landscape are never romanticised or picturesque, but there is a strong sense of the hardship of everyday farming life. Likewise, the book’s themes: isolation, death and mourning are presented in a very convincing ways and never sentimentalised.

The book group also discussed the division of the narrative into very short paragraphs. We thought that while it would be possible to join several paragraphs together and preserve the meaning, the ‘pauses’ in the text created by the blank lines serve a very important purpose. They force the reader to stop after each short chunk of text rather than let him or her rush through it.

For me personally, one of the most touching scenes was one in which a young boy goes badger baiting with his father and some other men. Before the action begins, we learn that he is bullied in school and when the others pick on him he takes pride in the fact that he had broken his own dog to rats. Later on in the chapter, when the badger comes out the boy has to force himself to develop a hatred for the badger to justify to himself the violence that will be inflicted on it and at the end ‘it was the badgers non-engagement that did it’. A bullied boy here becomes a bully himself and gains a sense of belonging through being united in violence with the men. This scene illustrate the perpetuation of the cycle of violence, but also the thin line between brutality and kindness.

We find a variation on this theme in another scene in which Daniel who’ll go to great lengths to protect his lambs is forced to kill an unborn lamb, albeit unwillingly, to save the ewe. It is this capability of brutality and kindness within one person which is for me the more haunting rather than the violence itself.