Some of the best British fiction has taken the reader far from the madding crowd and into the green depths of countryside. Idyllic-bucolic evocations tend to be the reserve of poetry (Wordsworth, John Clare); fiction prefers bleak-pastoral (Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence), charting the hardscrabble lives of weather-beaten people in tune with and in thrall to the land.
Continuing this tradition is Welsh author Cynan Jones, whose fine debut novel, "The Long Dry," was set on a small farm in Wales. His latest novel (and first to be published in the United States), "The Dig," also features a farmer, a man struggling through the lambing season and fighting waves of grief for his recently deceased wife.
But trespassing on Daniel's land and his bereavement is a second character referred to only as "the big man." He is a badger-baiter who exudes "horrific electricity" and whose cruelty counterpoises Daniel's humanity. Jones' slender novel, unfolding through a series of isolated paragraphs, follows the separate actions, agendas and mind-sets of both men. They are united only in the final pages, by which time we have seen the havoc one man has wreaked and the trauma the other has endured.
Readers may already feel dissuaded from picking up "The Dig." Certainly the first couple of pages are not for the squeamish, nor is one of the book's set pieces, a fight to the death between a defenseless badger and the ferocious hounds of a mob of beery, baying men. In addition to unsavory subject matter is Jones' simplistic moral setup: good man vs. bad man; one giving life to lambs, the other mercilessly killing badgers.
In actual fact, though, Jones is remarkably subtle and sketches the duality of his creations in the cleanest of strokes. And while his bloodier scenes are indeed gut-wrenching, they are stunningly composed: raw, visceral, adrenaline-infused writing that prompts us to flinch and quail but nonetheless keep turning the pages. One short, electrifying section in which Daniel, armed with a hacksaw and knife, attempts to bring two lambs into the world is guaranteed to transfix and then quietly stun readers.
In short, it is the unique textures and cadences of Jones' prose that carry the novel. He acutely conveys "the strange ventriloquy of sounds" that disturb Daniel's land and poignantly translates his loss.
Then there is the lush poetry of his quirky collocations ("flat night," "pasty violence," "distraught garden"), ornate adverbs ("I'll give it four hours, he thought, attritionally") and newfangled nouns ("surgicalness," "copperiness" — and, wonderfully, "He felt the great missingness of her").
More short but sour rather than short but sweet, "The Dig" proves that terser, more compact works of fiction can pack just as big a punch as longer novels. It is a blunt and unsparing novel, but it is also haunting and beautiful and deserves to be read at one sitting — not devoured, but savored.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.