The Dig by Cynan Jones
This novella has sat on my shelves for a few years. I meant to read it for last year’s #Dewithon but ran out of time, so it was my first choice for Welsh reading this year.
This is a hard-hitting story that once read can’t be forgotten. Two men, both alone in the countryside; one a farmer during the lambing season helping his flock to bring life into the world, the other a provider of animals to be slowly killed in the most cruel ways imaginable. The violence of the badger-baiter’s world is laid out right from the first page in the short prologue in which he is disposing of a badger corpse after the dogs had killed it by running it over – making it look like an accident. The badger had been a nursing mother too, but his only thought is disappointment that they didn’t get the cubs. Jones does the reader a favour by letting us know from the outset that there will be more of this to come. Some readers may not wish to read further.
But next we move to the lambing shed of a farm, where an exhausted farmer, Daniel is lambing on his own at night, but just has to have a break, returning to the farmhouse for a nap.
He put the clock down on the table and lay down on the sofa and pulled the spare duvet around himself. It was the longest they had been apart. She had gone once before for ten days to help when her father had been ill but this was the only other time and he could not accept that it was permanent and that it was three weeks since she’d died.
The two stories of the grief-stricken farmer who has to carry on for the sake of the lambs, and the badger-baiter twist around each other until, as the blurb suggests, their fates interlock. Jones writes each story in blocks of spaced paragraphs, some linked, some not, alternating between the two voices several times per chapter. The language is simple and direct, and naturally, there is tension from the outset as you brace yourself for the cruelty that’s surely to come, alternating with being moved by Daniel’s loss, but also the circle of life in the lambing shed.
This is one of the most powerful novellas I’ve read. If you can bear the subject matter, I really recommend it. (10/10)
P.S. Spoiler alert:
Incidentally, I was intrigued by the evolution of cover designs for this book. The hardback (left) has a full graphic badger’s head which emerges under the text. My edition, one of the first paperbacks (middle) , has a more obvious badger which I prefer to the later one, which also swaps the man standing sadly on the hill for a gravid female figure, which I think is a bit of a spoiler.
End of Spoiler alert.
Too Close to Breathe by Olivia Kiernan
Relocating to Ireland now, it was also about time that I read Olivia Kiernan’s first crime novel, especially as she’d signed it for me the first time I saw her at Mostly Books last year, she revisited for another crime panel recently (here).
Too Close to Breathe introduces Detective Chief Super Frankie Sheehan of the Dublin Garda. The novel begins with the autopsy of a 39-year-old woman who had been found hanging, supposed suicide. It will be Frankie’s first new case for a while as she is returning to work after being badly injured by a man whose trial will be coming up soon. Her boss, Assistant Commissioner Jack Clancy, is keen to make sure she’s ready for work and the looming trial.
An open and shut suicide should be perfect to ease back in, but Sheehan, a trained profiler, spots something that indicates the hanging woman couldn’t have been on her own when she died, and it becomes a murder. The victim, Dr Eleanor Costello was a respected microbiologist, a great lecturer, her house was strangely pristine, her husband, Peter, is nowhere to be found.
Peter Costello’s not coming home. I can feel it. The house is expecting no one. It has been opened up, scraped clean, relieved of the secrets it holds. It’s no longer a home to this couple. For one it’s a grave, the other a net.
Frankie Sheehan is a great creation. A policewoman who has worked hard to progress up the ranks, she’s really good at her job, professional – but to be faced with a murder that gets increasingly complicated by the day after nearly being killed herself is a tough first case back. Her team are devoted and efficient, (I particularly liked Baz, Detective Harwood), but as the hours tick by into days and they are no further along solving the first murder – of course there will be more to muddy the waters – and the pressure is on for results. Clancy gives as her as much freedom as he can, but his bosses control the forensic pursestrings. That there could be budgetary constraints relatively early into a murder investigation adds an interesting side tension to the crime itself which I’ve not really seen before in a crime novel.
Early on too, we discover that one or other of the Costellos had a secret life on the dark web, and further revelations continue to add a shocking dimension to the case, keeping Frankie – and us – on our toes all the way through until the climax. At 344 pages, Too Close to Breathe is not too long unlike the trend for doorstop crime novels. It’s well plotted and I don’t want to give too much away, but I just had one small niggle regarding a chemistry info dump at one point and a question over where one of the substances mentioned would come from. Otherwise, this is a great debut and I’m looking forward to reading the next books in the series, Ann at Cafe Society thought the second book was even better than the first. (8/10)