No end of year list this. Just a short recommendation of a short, stark and arresting novel: a bleak midwinter read.
The Dig is Cynan Jones' fourth book, but the first that I have found. It is the story of two men who's lives are ingrained in the cold, sodden fields of the hill country of mid Wales; one a recently bereaved sheep farmer, the other a single-minded badger-baiter. The language and tone of the narrative is sparse and bleak and matter of fact, reflecting the landscape in which the two protagonists edge towards their, seemingly inexorable, fated confluence.
It is clear where most reader's sympathies will lie: with Daniel, the farmer bringing new life at lambing time, sleep-walking through the long hours occupied by memories of his dead wife, rather than the un-named big man with his dogs and his barbarous occupation. But this is an unsentimental picture of rural life and both men are of the land; making a living through their knowledge and understanding of the animals they share their days with. Indeed they are both in some way trapped in their existence in the fields. Of the big man we are told: "He was too much of an instrument to change what he did".
The writing of Cynan Jones has been compared to the visceral narrations of landscape, of nature that characterise the work of Ted Hughes and Cormac McCarthy. I was also reminded of God's Own Country by Ross Raisin, rooted in the North York Moors and the words of its upland anti-hero narrator. The cadence of the writing, seemingly awkward at first, draws the reader into the landscape, pulls you away from the passive gaze of an outsider.
Reading the book reminded me of two of my own observations from earlier in the year; brief glimpsings that unsettled, and have stayed with me. The first was on a local walk, during a cold and glowering late winter morning. Resting at a field gate affording a fine wide-screen view, I was drawn to the sound of dogs and men closer to hand. Down-slope at the fields edge (the field in these photographs) I surveyed a pick-up truck, its occupants digging in the bank running along the boundary, accompanied by insistent barks. I did not linger, was not seen. But I had seen them and wondered what their labours were in this lonely spot. Perhaps renewing a fence or clearing scrub? This was not the view I came away with though. There was something malevolent in the air. Had I happened across badger-baiters? was the question that nagged for the rest of the day.
A contrasting day and location in the summer: waiting at a rural level crossing in the Aire Valley, North Yorkshire and the only people disembarking into the sunshine from the two carriage diesel unit are a rag tag band of teenage boys; track-suited hyperactivity - lads from the estates of Keighley or Bingley or Bradford, maybe Leeds I surmised. As we waited on opposite sides of the crossing gates their exuberance was a striking counterpoint to the reticent village halt that had just accepted them. Equally frantic dogs accompanied the boys, one of whom carried a wooden box in which his ferrets lurked. As the gates lifted the gang unhesitatingly and knowingly climbed the nearest four bar and raced across the large field adjacent to the station, their released dogs filling its space. Space that minutes earlier had been the benevolent preserve of their prey, gambolling rabbits. I carried on my way as a passing local resident dialled the number of the field's owner.
The Dig gives voice to such encounters at the sharp end of rural life. The story dissects our cosy view of the countryside to reveal the unbidden and often unspoken darkness that lurks at every gate post, in every copse, atop every hill. A reminder that harsh, hard lives and deeds bleed into the landscape still.