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the dig

5 august 2016

Two years ago, I was looking through the bargain bin outside the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore in Paris. I came across a novel called The Dig that looked interesting, but I don't remember why. I made a note on my phone: The Dig.

Two weeks ago, I ordered a novel called The Dig via InterLibrary Loan, but now I'm not sure if it's the same one I found in France. There are probably half a dozen English novels called The Dig. John Preston's, the one that arrived from the Irving (TX) public library, is from 2007 – in fact the American edition is from 2016, so for once I'm reviewing a brand new book here. The one I saw in Paris seems to me to have been older, a beat-up paperback from decades ago. There are even newer Digs too, including one by Cynan Jones (2014) that looks very interesting.

The Dig in Preston's novel is Sutton Hoo, a very big dig indeed. Preston recounts, fictionally, the uncovering of the great hoard in Suffolk, in 1939 – the greatest of all English archeological treasures. Preston's narrative choices are intriguing, and give the novel its form, strengths, and weaknesses. He narrates the discoveries at Sutton Hoo via a series of first-person narrators. Initially, these are Edith Pretty, owner of Sutton Hoo House and the adjoining mounds that she had excavated, and Basil Brown, the local archeologist she hired to do the excavation. But halfway through, the perspective shifts to that of Peggy Piggott, another archeologist, one we haven't heard of till she starts speaking.

It's a bold move: to get us interested in one set of characters and then shift to another protagonist who hasn't yet appeared. Yet it works, because Peggy is an appealing narrator. And because the shift aligns with one of Preston's understated themes, the role of social class in the management of the Sutton Hoo find. Basil Brown is a locally-trained representative of the educated working class. Peggy and her husband Stuart are middle-class, university-educated researchers brought in because the brain trust of British archeology does not trust Brown to do a professional job.

Preston doesn't lay this class theme on with a trowel. There are no sharp villains or heroes in his story. For that matter, there's no sharp plot direction or message. We know how things will turn out: the gold and other artifacts from the dig will become one of the British Museum's star attractions. In the novel, we see how this big overdetermined story arc will inflect a few lives that it touches in its course.

We expect novels to weave romance into a workaday world, and The Dig verges on romance, but here too the themes are subtle. Mrs. Pretty and Mr. Brown admire each other across a gap made greater by pull of their spouses: her late well-born officer husband, his distinctly lower-born and still distinctly living wife. Peggy's marriage is off to a rocky start, her honeymoon interrupted by the call to come dig at Sutton Hoo – to no evident displeasure on her husband's part, as Stuart doesn't seem to be able to conceive of his new wife as a sexual being. She meets Edith Pretty's nephew Rory, a photographer documenting the dig, and the two of them go out on a date of sorts to hear nightingales (a scene that just slightly verges on the sentimental, with touches of goldleaf and birdsong). But nothing comes of it, of course; it's 1939 and they're English and, well, you know.

The romance in The Dig is, appropriately, that of archeology itself. It's the same romance that draws Rory to photography: that of trying to understand life from its vestiges. As he tells Peggy,

What do you think people are likely to find of us in 2,000 years' time? Do you think they might find this thermos and wonder who it belonged to? Who drank from this cup? And even if they do wonder, they'll never know. Not about us. Who we were. What we were thinking and feeling at the time. At best, only this thing will have survived. Everything else will simply have disappeared. (215-216)
The theme of seeking connection to the past through lost, discarded, or treasured-up items is revived at the very end of the novel in a lovely way, which I won't spoil here.

The Dig reminded me of J.L. Carr's Month in the Country, another novel centered on archeology, another subtle, oblique look at lives in the presence of the past. Carr, however, uses a single first-person narrator where Preston uses several. There's always slightly more artifice apparent in novels told by a succession of first-person narrators. We can imagine one individual garrulously spinning a yarn about a memorable few months of his life; we're less certain why a sampling of them would convene to do it. Carr's book is less lyrical but oddly lovelier. Preston's is excellent, though, and you should read them both.

Be advised that the Wikipedia page on The Dig informs us that the novel contains "Altered Information" and "differs in various ways from the real events of the Sutton Hoo excavations." I should hope so. Real life is generally even less romantic than fictional English antiquarians.

Preston, John. The Dig. 2007. New York: Other Press, 2016. PR 6066 .R43D54