03/26/2015 08:57 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2015

The Bottom Line: 'The Dig' By Cynan Jones

Coffee House Press

The Dig
by Cynan Jones
Coffee House Press, $15.95
Publishes April 7, 2015

The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think:
If writers like Ben Marcus and Tom McCarthy -- champions of the absurd, harbingers of the fall of realism -- are to be believed, straightforward stories have lost their luster. In fact, linguist and Huffington Post blogger Naomi Baron asserts that literature, when competing with more grabby mediums, has to fight to stay interesting. But those sounding the knell for traditional stories may have a hard time explaining books like Cynan Jones’s The Dig, a swift, elegant novella about a farmer, a badger hunter, and the inevitable clash of their opposing lives.

Though Jones’s language dazzles, he uses his stunning prose to tell a realistic story about the realities of loss and grief. Daniel and his wife have dedicated their lives to farming lambs, aiding the birth of ewes each spring. Through their simple story, Jones sheds light on the issues confronted by farmers today -- the piles of paperwork, the headache-inducing restrictions to fulfill in order to obtain an organic status. Though the author’s opinions on the matter are clear, the novel never veers into heavy-handedness -- the story is more poetic than political.

When we’re introduced to Daniel, he’s pining over his wife’s scent while resisting nestling into their bed. We learn, soon, that she’s recently died, and that Daniel is grieving, relying on his own busy schedule to stay occupied. At the same time, lambing season reminds him of her, as they made a conscious choice to put the farm at the center of their lives.

His story is contrasted by that of a brawny, looming outcast -- referred to simply as “the big man,” who prides himself in badger baiting, and seems sickened by weakness. Jones dips his toe into the political here, too -- by revealing the gruesomeness of the oft-ignored and illegal act of removing badgers from farms by trapping them with packs of dogs. It's a fraught and relevant legal issue in rural Wales, where Jones lives and works. But, again, aside from a nod to Badger Watch & Rescue in the acknowledgements, the issue recedes behind Jones's muscular use of language.

The author’s rich descriptions of the land indicate not only a reverence for it, but also a belief that the characters in his story are shaped by their surroundings -- the sea, the farmlands, the bustle of animal cries and other earthy sounds. Jones’s language resembles that of Richard Ford’s -- the noises of his words and repetition of his phrases wrap the reader up in his fictional landscapes. The characters, too, seem fated to follow their impulses rather that making active decisions. A boy who tags along on a badger hunt swells with pride for his dogs; Daniel feels consumed by a desire to bury the little optimism he still holds onto.

Jones’s tense tale pulses steadily towards an abrupt yet satisfying conclusion. At 150 tightly-packed pages, it’s a darkly beautiful book worth reading.

The Bottom Line:
The Dig is a short, powerful story that wraps contemporary issues about modern farming in stunning, earthy language.

What other reviewers think:
The Guardian: "The countryside is rarely excavated with the panache of Cynan Jones in this dark, tense and vital short novel."

The Telegraph: "Jones addresses you with a poetic directness that owes something to Dylan Thomas."

Who wrote it?
Cynan Jones is a self-described author of short novels. The Dig is his third, and was originally published in the UK.

Who will read it?
Anyone interested in poetic language, issues pertaining to modern farming or books about nature.

Opening lines:
"He pulled the van into the gateway and dropped the lights. It was a flat night and the van looked a strange, alien color under it. For a while he sat there carefully."

Notable passage:
"She seemed to prematurely age, to adopt some strange outwardly witnessed notion of old people in the way teenagers put on some adulthood. There was no adjustment to the fact that eighty was not a rare age anymore, and that sixty was what forty used to be. She started to order elasticated trousers and strange shoes that made her look incongruously aged like teenagers look in grown-up clothes, and seemed to choose a stock phrase book of senior comments which she took to saying with a wistful acceptance; again, like a teenager trying to sound grown up."