The story of The Dig hinges on two contrasting narratives, that of ‘the big man’, a badger hunter, and Danny, a recently widowed farmer. It is understood that Danny’s wife, kicked in the head by a skittish horse, died only a couple of weeks previously, and that Danny is in the early stages of bereavement. Most of all, we follow his struggle through the lambing season—a two-person job at the best of times, and a duty that he is now trying to cope with alone.
The big man, on the other hand, is identified as a savage individual and petty criminal pretty much straight away. He breeds hunting dogs and is employed covertly by local farmers to ‘deal with’ rat and badger problems. Badger hunting is illegal and brutal. Jones spares no deal.
All in all, as you can probably guess, The Dig didn’t exactly make for an uplifting read. Cynan Jones writes about slow-moving Welsh country life, with scenes that are pregnant with hidden tensions and sadness—if you’re keen on a fast pace with exciting twists and turns, this book is not for you.
…If you balk at the mention of animal cruelty, this book particularly not for you.
Having said that, there were things about The Dig that I thought were very unique. Jones writes very simply, but with a certain magic that makes simple observation heavy with meaning and emotion. The contrast between the two main characters is stark, and intentionally so. Danny demonstrates a tenderness of heart towards his land and his animals that hits home, making the comparative cruelty of the big man extremely shocking. Added to this is the writing style, which Jones alters according to the character portrayed. Danny’s narrative is far more poetic, touchingly so, whereas the sections that refer to the big man’s activities are far more matter-of-fact.
The Dig therefore offers a real depth with regard to reading experience. There were moments when I felt close to tears when reading about Danny’s grief and other moments were I was truly appalled when reading about the savagery of animal hunting. Despite the rather dark subject matter, however, I also can’t remember reading anything in a while that’s managed to evoke such a strong response in so few words… and that’s a good thing!
As a Welshman writing about Wales, Cynan Jones automatically strikes me as being of real interest. In the grand scheme of Britishness, the Welsh have a tendency to be overlooked (they don’t complain anywhere near as much as the Scots, and the accent never quite reached the same lovable status as the Irish). Maybe, however, with more writers like Cynan Jones to do justice to the intricacies of Welsh life—showcasing both the good and the bad that can be found hidden in the sleepy countryside of Wales—more heads will turn. Mine certainly has.