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Review: The Dig, by John Preston
Other Press, 2007. 259 pp. $17

Edith Pretty, a sickly, grieving widow, has long wondered what, if anything, lies hidden in the burial mounds that dot her East Anglia property. Since it’s spring 1939, and Britain is belatedly preparing for the war that everyone expects, Mrs. Pretty decides to seize the moment. She hires Basil Brown, a taciturn, self-effacing “soil expert” recommended by a local museum, to dig where he thinks most likely. He receives room, board, and little more than a pound a week.

Even if you don’t read the publisher’s description, which tells you in its first words about an archaeological treasure, you know that Basil will unearth something special. And even if you’ve never heard of Sutton Hoo, the celebrated find to which the summary also refers, you know that the splendor of the result will stand in strong contrast to the unassuming man. Further, because he is so unassuming — and because he’s a low-paid nobody — there will be plenty of somebodies, or would-be somebodies, queuing up to thrust him aside.

Sutton Hoo, where archaeologists unearthed priceless clues to sixth- and seventh-century life in England (2011, courtesy amitchell125 at English Wikipedia)

So the story of this slim, engaging novel isn’t about the find as much as what it means. The Dig explores connection, mostly the lack of it, and how people try to compensate. For instance, Edith Pretty misses her late husband deeply and feels her age and ill health overtaking her. So for her, the excavation evokes death, of course, but also a last project affirming her existence and a dream she shared with the man she loved. She also worries about her young son, Robert, a lonely, energetic child, and what his future will be; it’s unspoken, but she’s thinking firstly of the war, and her own mortality. As for Basil, he seems not to mind spending several weeks away from his quarrelsome, emotionally distant wife. The excavation excites him, if anything does, but it’s as if he’s on a working holiday, and the money talks.

Preston’s storytelling varies in quality. He starts with one of those infernal, useless prologues (which then reappears, word for word, later on). There’s little plot to speak of, except the gradual progress toward discovery, and the power plays that ensue. But Preston’s narrators — Edith, Basil, and Peggy Piggott, an archaeologist whose husband was her professor at university — carry the day. You see the characters’ yearnings, which they seldom voice; the vicious social snobbery that everyone seems to accept as the natural order; and the oncoming war, whose tension simmers in the story’s peripheral vision, occasionally intruding, only to glide away.

The prose takes few flights of fancy and, perhaps like the novel’s most sympathetic character, is humble and workmanlike, even in Edith’s class-conscious voice:

I sat on the window seat, staring out. Trying to ward off thoughts that came towards me like flocks of angry birds. One memory in particular kept returning: Robert running across the grass with his arms stretched out and his cheeks full of air. And then my pushing him away. I know that I am failing him. The awareness sits there, like a weight on my shoulders, pressing down. Constantly reminding me that whatever capacity I once possessed for motherhood is disappearing.

All that seems left is this ever-widening gap between the scale of my devotion and my ability to succor him. To protect him.

Yet The Dig possesses a quiet eloquence, at times. I particularly like the scenes in Peggy’s narration in which, without exactly saying or thinking so, she realizes that her husband can’t or won’t offer her the warmth she craves. It’s especially poignant because they’re newlyweds, having shortened their honeymoon to join the dig. The way the men talk to her, husband included, is worse than condescending, though the reader understands that better than Peggy does.

Operating under the surface, if you will, The Dig may not seem weighty or significant. But I find it memorable nonetheless, for its small moments and large themes uncovered with a light hand, much as with the pastry brush that Basil uses gently to avoid damaging ancient artifacts.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.