Self-described ‘writer of short novels’, Welsh author Cynan Jones’ most recent offering is a bleak and diamond-hard look at man’s relationship with nature (read, literally, as in: the masculine). Breaking with perceptions of farming life as a gentle bucolic idyll, Jones mines it for its most jagged edges, revealing a gothic, and mostly nocturnal perspective on the Welsh countryside where violence and nature are intertwined. More specifically, the underworld of illegal badger baiting – known as a ‘dig’ – to be used for blood sport and gambling.
From the onset, Jones establishes a dark tableau of good versus evil in which two men, not entirely known to each other, hover at each other’s periphery, underpinned by a tense knowing they must at some time collide. The book opens with a man – referred to only as ‘the man’ throughout – parked on a hill, surveying the farmhouses below at lambing season. Even aside from the dead and badly disfigured badger he has with him, his air of malevolence is palpable; he is a man, who, “wherever he went, brought a sense of harmfulness”. His story is contrasted as it interlocks with a struggling sheep farmer, Daniel below him in one of the farmhouses. Recently bereft by tragedy – in an act, incidentally, of senseless violence by nature – we meet Daniel with subtly similar but also contrasting imagery, as he extracts a breached lamb from its mother; a claustrophobic, irksome scene, slick and warm with fluid of birth and the hovering threat of death.
Style-wise, Jones uses tightly composed, yet sparse language, holding the reader’s gaze with excruciating tension for even the most casual violence. The inspection of a young boy’s terrier’s wounds after a dig – an initiation for both boy and terrier – moves through orderly concentric circles of uncomfortable viewing, beginning with the “glancing scratch underneath its jaw”, to “[lifting] the cut flap of skin up, peeling it from its own blood…The blood soaked into the rough coat and it was jammy”.
Author of The Dig, Cyan Jones
Violence itself is a slippery figure, and while the badger and the dogs are its most explicit rendering, it is refracted into multiple guises and incarnations. In describing the Man’s harmfulness, he extends it to the inanimate objects around him, where even his car when he gets out, “lifted and relaxed like a child relieved after the momentary fear of being hit”. Then there is the uncomfortable coupling of Daniel’s extraction of the breached lamb, alongside the Man’s brutal treatment of the badger that complicates the earlier tableau of good and evil, implying that even a careful, necessary intervention with the lamb is a subtly savage, an unnerving aberration. In this world, Jones seems to be saying, to commune with the land, with nature, is to be complicit in its the violence, and while the two men make for stark contrast, it is infinitely more complicated than that.
Because while the two men are worlds apart, there are some uncomfortable parallels, that, though never spelt out, carry throughout the book. That the Man is possibly of indeterminate ‘gypsy’ origin destabilises the contrast of the two being ‘good-versus-evil’ and adds a complex postcolonial dimension to the tableau. That they each extract their living from nature is also inescapable, and offers a confronting perspective on the poisoning of the landscape with agriculture as much as with bloodsport; in the eyes of nature, could they not both be considered acts of human violence?
Such bleakness of theme may well have amounted to a work of unreadable maudlin heaviness. But Jones’ skill is to offer redemption alongside loss, especially in ever-renewing nature – in the nursing of a defenseless newborn lamb, in the irrepressible willingness of life. And though it’s a dark and often confronting book, it is a stunning feat of alchemy to create a work of such visceral brutality that also manages glimpses of such aching beauty.
By Jenni Kauppi