The Dig by John Preston

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The Dig by John Preston

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: In a Britain on the brink of war, a momentous archaeological find comes to light. In spare but tender prose, the author evokes human alliances and conflicts, and the shifting tides of history.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-0141016382

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In the summer of 1939, most of Britain was preparing for war. But down in the Suffolk countryside, a gentler clash of civilisations was taking place. The Sutton Hoo excavations were one of this country's most important archaeological discoveries: 'Britain's Tutankhamun' screamed the headlines of the day. In The Dig John Preston has used these events, and the stories of actual people involved, to enact a peculiarly English drama: gentle yet powerful.

Far from the grimy exercise in mud and tedium which archaeology suggests to most people, this slim novel has a refreshing lightness of touch. The buried Anglo-Saxon ship uncovered during the book is so decayed as to be merely a ghostly imprint on the sandy soil. So it's apt that Preston's spare, tender prose deals in hints and implications with an, at times, poetic economy and suggestiveness.

The story is told through the accounts of three of the main characters. The first is Edith Pretty, a widow on whose land the dig took place. The next is Basil Brown, the local amateur archaeologist whom Mrs Pretty employs to investigate the strange mounds. But the bulk of the action is relayed through the voice of Peggy Piggott, a young archaeologist (and Preston's aunt). With her husband and former tutor Stuart, she is called in from her honeymoon to take over from Brown once the significance of the finds becomes clear.

Because it has a well-known ending and is based on actual diaries left by those involved at Sutton Hoo, the book does not have to struggle to be believable. Relieved of this burden, Preston is free to build up, like a watercolourist, a sense of a way of life - the gentle world of maids, butlers and kindly rural bobbies - which is fading away, just as an older and stranger one is emerging from the mud. And of course, there are the ominous threats of a more brutal invasion to echo the earlier one implied by the buried boat.

Preston wisely gives almost equal weight to the human dramas unearthed by the dig as he does to the delicate brushings and occasional stunning finds. As ever, these are subtly played and slowly uncovered. Using underplayed comic contrast, he sets the gentlemanly world personified by Basil Brown against the forces of pompous professional egos and officialdom. Peggy Piggott's dawning awareness that her chaste marriage is built on shaky foundations, and her intimations of what might have been, provide a wash of muted poignancy.

Fittingly, Preston overlays themes of afterlife and impermanence: Edith Pretty's regular trips to London to consult a medium for hints of her dead husband echo the beliefs of those who, 1,200 years previously, had sent their king on his voyage to the next life. And just as the body of that monarch left scarcely a mark on the soil that consumed him, so we sense that these characters, and we too, will all too soon leave nary a blemish on the pages of history.

Using occasional but timely suspense, and the odd hint of metaphysical lyricism, Preston generally eschews sledgehammer symbolism or patronising exposition. He also avoids the authorial ventriloquism which plagues many novelists writing in the first person. Instead we are left to pick out our own meanings from the unfolding events.

From what might seem slightly leaden raw material, John Preston has wrought the gold of a touching and magnificently insightful novel. Many people could, I imagine, read it in one sitting, so deceptively weightless is the writing. But it builds washes of meaning and significance belied by its brevity to leave a lasting impression. The Dig is a modest masterpiece.

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