In 2014, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize worked with the Regional Literature Development Agencies to find reading groups across the UK to read the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize-winning titles.
The Dig by Cynan Jones was read by the Whitley Bay Reading Group from Whitley Bay and below are reviews from its reading group members.
“The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize helps develop wider audiences for emerging and deserving British writers … of outstanding work, looking beyond the debut novelists and the bestsellers.”
The book we were given to read, Cynan Jones’s The Dig, fitted this brief perfectly. Of the 17 of us who met to discuss the book, only one had heard of it through reviews in the press, and everyone said it was a book that on the face of it they were unlikely to have read otherwise, and yet the response to it was overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic.
(please note – spoiler alert for what follows!)
Most, if not all, agreed it was a challenging read, with its intertwining narratives of an unnamed badger baiter, and a farmer grieving for his recently deceased wife. It’s a slender book, with sparse prose and short paragraphs, but which packs an incredible emotional punch.
First and foremost, there was considerable praise and admiration for the beauty of the language. Poetic, visceral, harrowing, clever, vivid, moving and engaging were all words echoed time and again by members. The structure of the book – lots of often very short paragraphs – was problematic for a few, at least at first, but most felt it was a structure that worked and enhanced the stark, simple telling of the story. A few members cited some expressions that were less successful, and felt that at times the language felt a little over-written and self-conscious, but the majority felt the pull of the language was stronger than any misgivings over the graphic descriptions of animal cruelty.
The cruelty that the un-named Big Man inflicted on animals was indeed too much for some, but there was general consensus that he was a repulsive but nonetheless believable character, and we wondered about his motivations and background.
Everyone felt tremendous empathy for Daniel. It was not until page 21 that we are told his wife had recently died, and for most, it was a profound shock that had several returning to re-read the preceding pages. All agreed it was a very moving and touching exploration of grief, the loss not just of a woman he so clearly loved deeply, but also of the life they’d shared, and expected to continue to share.
There were many themes and issues to explore within the book. We talked about whether Daniel or the Big Man were the more lonely – the one increasingly isolated by circumstances and grief, the other ostensibly part of society, but a society that perhaps tolerated him only as a necessary evil.
We also talked about the fact that Daniel is the only named character in the book; the effective (if sometimes also rather graphic) portrayal of life on a farm, and the difficulties facing some farmers today; and the theme of sacrifice running through the book, which came to a head with Daniel’s demise at the end of the book.
In fact, the ending of the book provoked the most differences of opinions: for some it felt rushed and abrupt; some felt the analogy of the badger caught in the sett and the Big Man at home when the police arrived was overplayed; others were simply caught up in wondering how it would play out.
Overall, not all of its fans felt able to say that it was a book they loved or enjoyed, but the vast majority of the group greatly admired it, particularly its stark, poetic language, and were glad we’d been given this chance to discover it, so thank you Fiction Uncovered!
Read more about our reading group projects here.