Book review: 'The Dig' by Cynan Jones

Poetry, red in tooth and claw

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The Independent Culture

Anyone lucky enough to encounter badgers close up can attest to their stripy, hirsute charms. Despite a retiring nature, they are prominent in folklore and children’s fiction. Lately, of course, they have been in the news: the controversy around official culling continues. But The Dig concerns the more nefarious practice of badger-baiting.

The setting is an unnamed part of rural Wales. The area is possessed of a natural beauty that contrasts with the unnatural poverty of many of its residents. Jones builds a two-handed narrative, alternating between the perspectives of a sheep farmer and a gypsy. The farmer’s wife has just died and he is struggling with the lambing season on an acreage which is too small to be viable. The gypsy, meanwhile, earns a precarious living from clearing rat infestations with his terriers.

For extra income, he uses them for badger baiting.

Yet to set out the novel’s context and content in this way is to miss the main point, which is that Jones’s use of language is so frequently stellar. There is a good comparison to be made with Niall Griffiths, himself a gifted stylist. Jones is less prolix, while remaining embedded in a tradition of Celtic lyricism. Often, only layout distinguishes his euphonious prose from poetry: “The sound seemed tangible in the air, and everything felt silent before it. The sheep sighed and crunched, the cattle’s feet slapped as they moved in the mud. The dog chain rattled like coins in some dark pocket. But this sound brought stillness.” Jones rises to these heights on at least every other page.

Lyrical or not, he is always unsentimental, his writing resolutely inhabiting the harsh realities of his subject matter. His mastery of setting means that he can dwell upon the farmer’s grief with spare sensitivity, demonstrating the ways in which the farm and its routines have become haunting palimpsests of his wife. This intensity of absence counterpoints the gypsy’s intimacy of violence. He is large and intimidating, and his primal connection to the landscape around him is of a kind that refuses community.

He is an outcast, even in a place where many locals are united only by their isolation.

Jones builds tension neatly, mostly centred around the baiting. It begins with the release into the sett of a terrier with a transponder attached to its collar. When it corners the badger the baiters start digging down to capture it. Badgers are peaceful animals but when they defend themselves they can be ferocious. The baiters smash their teeth and claws to make them easier prey for their dogs. Jones’s unflinching descriptions make his accounts of the baiting harrowing.

His ending is a little rushed, not quite matching the unforced flow of the rest of the narrative, but this flaw is minor. Jones has produced three previous novels. On the basis of The Dig alone there is no doubt that he is one of the most talented writers in Wales – or, for that matter, the rest of Britain.