Book Review

This is everything. This is all I need. With these words Daniel, a Welsh sheep farmer, is contemplating his fulfilled life in the very moment when everything he needs falls apart. In Cynan Jones’s novel The Dig, life and death, the transcendent and the fallen, are desperately entangled.

Jones’s novel about death’s central place in the drama of life is richly imagined and voiced in the twin stories of Daniel, a young sheep farmer, as well as a character who is only known as “big man,” who is a badger poacher. As Daniel cares for his lambing sheep, he nurses the terrible wound of the recent death of his young wife. At the same time, big man captures badgers by digging into their burrows, or setts, to sell them for illegal baiting matches. Both men tangle with death in their own onerous ways: Daniel in the shadow of the violent and unexpected death of his wife, and big man through a compulsion to cruelly kill that is as deeply ingrained and as automatic as his breath.

Despite their differences, both men are trapped by the impending death curled up within all life. Throughout The Dig they are faced with equivalent experiences of the triumph of death over life. Death makes them loners. Daniel avoids human company since his wife’s death, even telling his mother to stop visiting him. Big man has long been alone and has no social impulses. Death’s strength severs both men from the social world. If they are connected to anything, Daniel and big man are linked to the inescapable and destructive cravings of nature.

Jones displays an uncommon ability to render this dark and natural world in descriptions simultaneously earthly and transcendent. When explaining the birth of a lamb, Jones presents Daniel’s thoughts as his arm probes the sheep’s pregnant womb:

There is an understood geography, familiar and mammal, as if some far back thing guides his hands about the lamb inside her, understands the building of the baby, this thing he does, which could be repellent, comfortable to him somehow, the warmth, the balloon warm and lipid. It is only visually there is shame. The fluids and motherly efforts… [are] too ancient for shame, and he understands a great and vital force at work, equanimical with his instinct, and assured.

The very stuff of animal matter—the assembly of parts and pieces often considered repellent—are both the symbol and object of something higher, noble, and peculiarly beautiful. In a strangely similar instance, when big man digs into a badger hole, there is a grudging respect for the sullen, musky earth, and the badger hidden in it:

There was old bedding around the hole, the strange skeletal bracken starting to articulate its color in the gray light. Jip started to bounce on the lead and strain for the hole as if he could sense the badgers. The strewn bracken might have meant the badgers had gone overnight, but from the way the dog was behaving there was a fresh, present scent.

Nature exercises the special privilege of smothering its creatures in raw matter. Jones takes great care to describe the detritus of animal existence, showing the unique power of “all these things of life, from jissom to mucus slavered between thighs to the wet sack of birth and glistening oiled newborn thing—all of these things life awatered.” In another passage an owl swept through a floodlight “between barns and was gone, seemingly to leave some ghost of itself, some measureless whiteness in the air.” This ghastliness is echoed when Daniel pulls a deformed lamb from a sheep’s womb, and he must remove its head with a saw, before he can pull it out, its “dead body moving behind it, will-less and without life, like paste in a tube.” Animal life in Jones’s lexicon is both ghostly and material.

Jones provides Daniel and big man with an intimate knowledge of the typology of nature. A sheep’s womb and a badger’s den are not simple holes, but the arenas where life and death struggle, etching out, in rough and ragged outlines, the inevitability of eventual loss. Daniel has been made a sad recipient of this knowledge by his wife’s passing, while big man is deceptively tough in his understanding, wanting to continue his domination over a nature he ultimately can’t control.

The Dig finally carries everything and everyone down into its very suggestive title: like Daniel and big man, the earth recalls the living to death. Whether it is a hole dug to capture and kill a badger or to bury Daniel’s wife, the Welsh countryside of Jones’s gloomy vision is prepared to cover her creatures with dirt. This sense of the animation of death, of its energy and charge toward eventual emptiness, provide The Dig with a vital sense of life’s fleeting course through the material world and toward the end of its own motion that happens all around us, always.

About the Reviewer

Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two children and is currently at work on a book on Jewish religious recluses, a novel, and short stories.