The Dig is a slender but powerful book in which, by whittling away all extraneous elements, Jones carves out a story which is both raw and graceful. It seems fitting that Jones describes his book as a ‘short novel’ rather than a novella: like his characters, he prefers plain words. The Dig is a short novel, then, made up of short chapters and even shorter paragraphs, some of which run to just one or two sentences.
This is a part of its power: by punctuating each page with such gaps, Jones gives us space to feel the resonance which surrounds each concentrated line, which presents itself to the eye more as poetry than prose. The page seems to sympathetically echo the sparse Welsh farming community which Jones describes, a place whose scattered community carry out ‘private processes, processes in their nature give or take the same, but in each space of light carried out in isolated private intimacy’.
In just this way, Jones’s story of two men—living in parallel but only dimly conscious of each other—affords us a broad view of life in rural Wales today, but is also a piercing exercise in portraiture. One half of the diptych is a character identified only as ‘the big man’, a savage and solitary figure who makes his living out of rat extermination (legally) and badger baiting (illegally). In the novel’s first, startlingly violent scene, the big man grinds a badger’s body into the road by repeatedly driving over it, working to conceal that the beast has been maimed and killed for sport, and for the fee the sport commands. The second man is Daniel, a farmer whose exhausting battle to keep his sheep farm up and running helps him to paper over the void left by the sudden death of his wife. In retrospective passages, Jones writes with almost unbearable tenderness of Daniel’s quiet happiness with his wife, even as they struggled against the uncertainties, privations and bureaucracy that make up the farming life. While Jones’s vision of nature and the farming life is resolutely unsentimental and shot through with violence, it is starkly beautiful and softened by depictions of the kindness of fragile community. When Daniel is forced to abandon the isolation of the farm to get petrol, a bacon sandwich is thrust wordlessly through his window.
Hemingway famously advised the writer to look to the iceberg as a model of good prose, omitting details wherever possible and leaving ‘only one-eighth… above water’. Jones seems to be of the Hemingway school in this respect, his small chunks of text hinting at enormous hidden emotional depths to his characters and a deep history to his landscape, things we can sense but cannot see. This is a novel which is preoccupied with things which are buried—a badger, a dead wife, even a shard of metal on Daniel’s farm which has for him a strange mythical resonance. Jones’s writing slices through the ground as violently as the baiters violating a badger’s sett, making the reader feel like a trespasser into lives which are painfully private, but leaving us unable to look away.