The Dig by Cynan Jones

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The Dig

Five words from the blurb: Welsh, farmer, struggling, grief, violence

The Dig is a short, but powerful book set in the Welsh countryside. In two alternate narratives it follows a badger-baiter and a grieving farmer as they struggle with their difficult lives.

I was apprehensive about reading this novella as I worried it would be disturbing. I was right to be concerned as the images contained within this book were graphic and haunted me long after I turned the last page. The descriptions of badger-baiting were so vivid that I admit to skimming over several paragraphs in an effort to save myself from the nauseating images. But what I failed to realise was that the emotional impact of the farmer grieving for his dead wife was far greater. His narrative initially appeared to be gentle, but the power grew over time.

He sat with his elbows on his knees and held the clock and listened to the pinging and ticking of the stove cooling, the last settling embers shifting down through the grate, the metronomic ticking of the clock. Three hours. He didn’t even want the telly on. He stared at its vacant, dark cataract.

The writing within this book was outstanding. It was like a master-class in how to produce maximum emotion with a minimum number of words. It provided a vivid snapshot of life in rural Wales, but part of me regrets reading it. I felt as though I’d been emotionally battered, but gained no new insight or information. I’m hesitant to recommend it as I don’t want to inflict this disturbing story on the minds of others, but give it a try if you are emotionally strong and would like to be immersed in the extremes of human experience.

(because it feels wrong to penalise a book for being too vivid!)


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  1. Victoria says:

    I thought this was incredibly powerful too, but you do need a strong stomach! The prologue kind of sets the tone – so graphic that although I made myself read every word I kept having to turn away and take a breather. But even though it’s horrible, the writing is so incredible and often so beautiful that I was entranced. I bought both his previous books on the back of reading it, and one of those opens with a corpse too. Gory detail seems to be Cynan Jones’ thing!

    1. Jackie says:

      Victoria, If Cynan Jones ever writes a lighter book I’ll be at the front of the queue for a copy! His powers of observation are amazing and I love the way he perfectly captures emotion – I just wish he’d capture some happiness on the page too! I look forward to reading your reviews of his earlier books.

  2. David says:

    I thought this was superb – so beautifully written even in its most brutal scenes. I really liked the way the two narratives echoed each other too with things like the way they both cared for their dogs, and the two ‘digs’ (the badger and the shard).
    You do need a strong stomach for some of it though – I’ve read a couple of books in the last few years with fairly graphic scenes of dog fighting (Jesmyn Ward’s ‘Salvage the Bones’ and Craig Davidson’s ‘Cataract City’) but this was even more sickening.

    I did wonder if the ending was too neat, but the whole thing had an almost parable-like quality to it and I think it fitted perfectly with that. But what really struck me about the book was the poetry of the writing – it was one of those novels I felt I had to read aloud to myself just to hear the beauty of its rhythms and phrases (in that way it reminded me a bit of Sarah Hall’s first couple of books).

    1. Jackie says:

      David, I think this is the most graphic book I’ve ever read. I didn’t have a problem reading any of the scenes in ‘Salvage the Bones’ (I haven’t read ‘Cataract City’). The only book that comes close is ‘The Cow’ by Beat Sterchi but even that book (about a slaughterhouse) didn’t have the emotional intensity of the badger baiting/lambing scenes.

      I agree about the quality of the writing. It was so beautiful that I feel bad about saying it was too powerful. It is like a pumped-up version of a Sarah Hall novel, but I think Sarah Hall gets the level of emotion just right. She is perfect, whilst Jones goes slightly too far for my liking

  3. Sandy says:

    OK now you have my attention. I consider myself to be pretty strong and can stand most anything, but strong images DO tend to creep into my dreams. First I have to see if I can even get this book over here.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I don’t think it is available in the US, but I’ll try to remember to bring my copy across to you this summer :-)

  4. There’s a YA book called A Day No Pigs Would Die about a farmer that has what I think is a “badgering” scene. It was pretty rough stuff. But should that make it off-limits for fiction?

    It’s that question I often have when people hesitate to read something that will provoke intense feeling. While I don’t want a steady diet of it, I do want it. What would our reading be like if it never provoked an intense emotion, ever?

    I find myself wishing this one was available in the U.S. Not to seek out an intense emotional book, but one that is as well written as you describe.

    1. Jackie says:

      James, I don’t think anything should be off limits for fiction. The scenes in this book were very hard to read, but I think it is important people are aware of what goes on. I admire an author who is able to tackle such a difficult subject with such skill – I just sort of wish he’d put his amazing writing talent to happier subject matters (or at least a balance of light and dark)


  1. ‘The Dig’ Cynan Jones | Reading Matters

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