Here’s a jewel that appears in the short novel, The Dig. It is an excellent book, much recommended in those lists of good reads of the year in 2014. But this is not a review of the novel. I only want to draw attention to one sharply observed character, the mother of the farmer. It is a miniature addition to the older women in fiction series.
Daniel’s mother, according to Cynan Jones, has a ‘staid farmhouse traditionalism’, found everywhere in the countryside. He refers to such women as ‘charged for generations with keeping their men working, by feeding them and repairing them, and there is no room for sentimentalism in that’.
But this sureness of purpose can only come from having a defined role and from not questioning it. It was certain to him that his mother had never questioned the role, but with that same conviction – age being a role in itself – she had adopted oldness when she had assumed she should, rather than when her body told her to.
She had seemed to prematurely age, to adopt some strange outwardly witnessed notion of old people in the way teenagers put on some adulthood. There was no adjustment to the fact that eighty was not a rare age any more, and that sixty was what forty used to be. She started to order elasticated trousers and strange shoes that made her look incongruously aged like teenagers look in grown-up clothes, and seemed to choose a stock phrasebook of senior comments which she took to saying with a wistful acceptance; again, like a teenager trying to sound grown up.
He didn’t know exactly what to do about this, but it was wearing. And then suddenly she was old, and the incongruity was not there. (48-9)
I know several people who enact being old. This woman doesn’t so much age as adopt oldness, before coming to be old.
But don’t read The Dig for Daniel’s mother alone. This novel justifies its recommendations. It is a brutal, harsh story of two men in the Welsh countryside. It reminds me of the differences between Welsh and English culture. The title refers to illegal hunting for badgers.
The writer has a great feel for place, and for the deep history of the Welsh rural landscape. Rural life is evoked most effectively through the skill and knowledge of their crafts that the men have developed, through the taciturn nature of much communication, and the sounds of the countryside.
For a moment he listened to the rattle of the corrugated iron as one of the cows scratched inside the barn, and to a tractor clanging as it changed loaders on the next farm (148).
The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014), published by Granta (156 pp)
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