Although The Dig (Granta Books) from Welsh author Cynan Jones is newly published, I’m not unfamiliar with it, or at least part of it. You see, back in February 2013 I read a short story by Mr. Jones that was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, and it was called The Dig. Sheer coincidence to have a short story and a novella with exactly the same name? Absolutely not, because the short story and the novella are one of the same, because the short story actually forms one of the chapters of this, a longer novella.
I remember reading the short story version of The Dig vividly (you can read my afterthoughts on the story HERE), because the grittiness and tension of it struck me. And around the time I read it I recall the author telling me on Twitter there was more of the same to come. Well, that ‘more of the same’ has arrived and I’m quite thrilled to be revisiting Jones’ story world again, in expanded form.
So what’s The Dig all about then? Well, it’s certainly not for the faint hearted. Aside from whatever is still to be revealed to me, the story centres around the gritty world of badger-baiting, and the gruesome detail that such an activity brings with it. To give you some idea of what lurks beneath, here’s the cover blurb:
The Dig is a searing novel. Built of the interlocking fates of a badger-baiter and a farmer struggling through lambing season, the story unfolds in a stark rural setting where man, animal, and land are at loggerheads. Jones writes of isolation and loss with resonant carefulness, and about the simple rawness of animal existence with an unblinking eye. There is no bucolic pastoral here. This is pure, pared-down rural realism, crackling with compressed energy, from a writer of uncommon gifts.
Now, this blurb is interesting to me in that the short story version of The Dig contains nothing of this mention of badger-baiter and struggling farmer joined together through interlocking fates. The rawness I’m wholly familiar with, as I am with the starkness of the rural setting, but this added element is sure to bring a new level of tension to the story – a tension that was already unbearable in the shorter form – making it all the more compelling, I hope.
There’s another reason why I’m a little pumped with the prospect of reading this book. I remember saying in my afterthoughts for the short story version of The Dig (it’s easy to remember when one can look it up and refresh oneself, right kids? :)), that it ended with the reader wondering about the characters and the life they continue to lead – you know, in true Chekhovian style. Well, here’s an opportunity for me to find out a little more about those characters – you know, in the complete opposite to Chekovian style 🙂 – who have much fascination (especially the protagonist, Daniel), together with the world they inhabit.
And the world in which these people inhabit, as revealed in the blurb as being ‘starkly rural’, is certainly as such. I said in my review of the short story that Cynan Jones paints a sense of the rural exquisitely, and that he must have a close connection with the countryside. Now, I’m not sure how close his connection is to the rural life, but having been born near Aberaeron, Wales – where he still lives and works – must surely qualify him massively in its own right. Writing is his primary career, although he does (did?) run a small wine business while teaching music part time. His first novel, The Long Dry (Parthian), published in 2006 – which incidentally is also themed on Welsh rural life – won the Betty Trask Award in 2007. In 2011 Jones published a second novel, Everything I Found on the Beach (Parthian), and while still set in his beloved Wales, it takes on more of a thriller element. In 2012 Jones was also commissioned to write one of the episode of Seren Books’ popular New Stories from the Mabinogion series, a title called Bird, Blood, Snow.
It’s clear then that Cynan Jones has accomplished much in his short time as a writer, but what is especially interesting about him is up to this point he has only focussed on the short form. Short stories yes, but his particular interest appears to lie in the novella form. In fact he markets himself as such, referring to himself as a ‘writer of short novels’ on his Twitter profile.
So, a short form specialist who has proven himself in literary circles, and to myself already? I’m predicting a hell of a positive reading experience ahead with this one, and if this novella expands on that which it gave me when reading the short story, then I’m setting off on my 2014 reading journey with a book that will be impossible to forget. I’ll be back in a few days to let you know how I fared with it. Meantime, please pass on any thoughts or feelings you may have.
Granta Books | 2 January 2014 | £12.99 | HARDBACK | 176 PP | ISBN: 9781847088789
Find out more about Cynan Jones:
- Author’s personal website.
- Author’s Twitter account.
- For Wales Arts Review, Cynan Jones on his favourite short stories.
- On AmeriCymru: Ten Questions with Cynan Jones.
A note about forethoughts
‘Forethoughts’ offer an insight into what my initial thoughts and impressions of a book are before I begin reading it. Informal, and largely written as a stream-of-consciousness exercise in a single sitting, my ‘forethoughts’ capture an important stage of the reading experience for me – the anticipatory period before the book is first opened, when my excitement is piqued for the reading experience which lies ahead.
Blissfully ignorant my ‘forethoughts’ may well be, but when combined with my eventual ‘afterthoughts’, the result is a unique and comprehensive record of a very personal literary ‘journey’ through a particular book; a literary journey which will hopefully be of some value to other readers.