One novel from last year, “The Dig” by Welsh writer Cynan Jones, was notable for taking tough, unpalatable subject matter — the painful bereavement process and the abject cruelty of badger-baiting — and presenting it in both raw, unflinching detail, and original and at times searingly beautiful language. On the back of its success, Coffee House Press has now published one of Jones’ earlier novels.
“Everything I Found on the Beach” may not take the same creative risks as “The Dig,” but as a novel full of skewed moral judgments and reckless acts, it has plenty of emotional clout and immense narrative pull.
The book begins like a thriller, with police examining a corpse on a Welsh beach. Fingers are missing and gulls have already pecked out the eyes. “We’ve got no idea who it is yet,” says one officer. We read on to discover the identity of the victim and how that person ended up this way.
Jones rewinds to offer up possible candidates. We meet Grzegorz, a migrant worker who, for the past year, has provided for his wife and two sons by toiling in a slaughterhouse. He knows he has failed his family and is going nowhere — “suspended somehow in this no-man’s-land between Poland and what they had held as an ideal new world” — yet still he holds out for “the next step” to change his fortune.
Also down on his luck is Hold, a hunter and fisherman, who is grappling with the premature death of his friend Danny, and struggling to look after Danny’s widow, Cara, and son, Jake. “If just one chance came along,” he tells himself.
That one chance for Hold and next step for Grzegorz soon appear, but with them comes life-threatening danger. Jones brings in a body in a boat, missing packages of drugs, and a third character, an Irish gangster called Stringer, who has clearly not mellowed from seven years in prison. We hurtle toward a taut and atmospheric finale where Jones’ last men standing meet head-on and the true extent of their desperation is revealed.
Jones infuses his novel with a sickening foreboding. Stringer exudes a “ticking unpredictability.” Grzegorz gets in too deep by agreeing to be a drug mule, Hold by becoming a one-man army. There are brief spurts of bloody, visceral prose — fish gutted, rabbits skinned, cattle stunned — along with moments of striking lyricism, whether quirky metaphors (a man has “a strange face like a dieting owl”), newly minted nouns (“edgemanship,” “automaticness”) or bizarre collocations (“the pleading sea,” “the grating of a tide”).
Jones’ novels, with their sharp and blunt language, harsh landscapes and flinty male characters, have been compared to those of John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. Too high praise, perhaps, for an author at this stage in his career, but on the strength of this fine book it is only a matter of time before it is fully earned.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Everything I Found on the Beach
By: Cynan Jones.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 229 pages, $15.95.