No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, February 11, 2011

2011/06: The Dig -- John Preston

"And how about events in the wider world?" Stuart asked. "How do you think they might affect us? ... The Germans ..."
"Germans?" said Phillips in surprise. "I don't recall a ship-burial ever being discovered in Germany."
"No, no. I meant the possibility -- likelihood, even -- of war."
"Oh," said Phillips. "That." (p.128)
A fictionalised account of the Sutton Hoo excavations in the summer of 1939, The Dig is one of those quietly deceptive books that seldom confronts its emotional concerns head-on. Each of the narrators in this novel -- widowed landowner Edith Pretty, local archaeologist Basil Brown, Peggy Piggott who's just married her university tutor, and an epilogue 26 years later by Robert Pretty, Edith's son -- is lonely, isolated, ineffectual, unmoored. Edith mourns her dead husband and fears she's a bad mother. Basil is unable to stand up to professionals with more breeding and education than he ever had the chance at. Peggy (who has to deal with the brunt of those professionals' sexist behaviour) is beginning to realise that there's something missing in her marriage; Robert, so long afterward, just gets to pick up the pieces, but it's clear that the summer of the dig is a fond and vivid memory.

The casual way the finds are treated -- ooh, a lump of leather! let's put it in boiling water, watch it unfold into a shoe-shape, then see it disintegrate before our eyes! -- is painful: but Preston's also captured the sense of touching the past, the stillness of the moment when something lost (or buried) is found again.

And over it all looms the oncoming war. Barrage balloons; aeroplanes overhead (including an impudent pilot who skims the top of the mounds at a sherry party); Mr Brown -- whose knowledge of Suffolk soil is unparallelled -- put to work digging an air-raid shelter. There's a distinct sense of imminent change: this world is about to end.

The novel's ending feels abrupt, though I suspect that's an intentional reflection of the suddenness of war. Only after I'd finished reading did I realise just how many stories remained half-told: Mrs Pretty's maid, Mr Brown's marriage, the excavation itself.

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