16 June, 2011

The Dig, by John Preston. Book review

Penguin, 2008, ISBN 978-0-141-01638-2. 230 pages

The Dig is set in the summer of 1939 during the discovery and excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial. All the main characters are historical figures. Note that the author’s note says that “Certain changes have been made for dramatic effect”, but no further detail is given about what has been changed. Readers looking for an account of the actual excavation should consider themselves warned that they should not treat the novel as fact.

In April 1939, as clouds of imminent war gather over Europe, Mrs Edith Pretty of Sutton Hoo House, Suffolk, asks local archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the ancient mounds on her land. When Basil unearths the ship-rivets of a magnificent early medieval ship, apparently undisturbed, academics from London and Cambridge promptly descend on the site, all eager to be involved in what promises to be a major discovery. When young Peggy Piggott, newly married to her former professor, discovers the first items of exquisite gold jewellery in the remains of the burial chamber, it becomes clear that this dig will exceed anything that had previously been imagined.

This is a slim volume, more of a novella than a novel, beautifully written in precise, literary prose. Sections are narrated in turn by Edith Pretty, Basil Brown and Peggy Piggott, each with their own distinctive tone. Peggy’s narrative in particular captures some of the wonder and awe inspired by the discovery of the burial; however, for the most part the ship burial is a backdrop for the characters’ emotions and relationships. Each character has their own concerns and preoccupations, and these form the main focus of the novel. Edith Pretty, widowed, lonely, in failing health and seeking solace in spiritualism, is increasingly anxious about her young son Robert and her ability to be a satisfactory mother to him. Peggy Piggott is intelligent and sensitive, and already uncomfortably aware that her marriage to her former university professor is in trouble, even though they are still on their honeymoon. She is at a loss as to why, or what to do about it, and even more uncertain about how she should react to Mrs Pretty’s nephew Rory, who is turning out to be something of a kindred spirit. Basil Brown, despite being “a tough old bird” for whom “it takes a lot to ruffle my feathers”, resents the high-handed manner in which he is pushed aside by the bombastic academic who muscles in on the excavation. All these contrasting people are brought together by the discovery of the ship, which holds its own significance and resonance for each of them.

The style is understated, and much is hinted at and left to the reader’s imagination. Expect to have to read between the lines and to be alert for small clues. In particular, the conflict between the academics, the Ipswich Museum staff and Mrs Pretty over who gets to run the excavation almost all happens off-stage. There are a few hints in Basil Brown’s narrative, but surprisingly little sense of the professional rivalries and passions that must surely have run high over such an important discovery.

An epilogue, narrated by Edith Pretty’s son Robert, gives the endings to most of the characters’ stories, although questions still remain.

Short, light, literary interpretation of some of the people involved in the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial in 1939.


Kathryn Warner said...

Sounds very interesting!

Rick said...

This seems quite unusual - a fictional work about actual but non-famous people in the rather recent past, and an archeological dig other than King Tut's tomb.

And it makes me wonder about the actual people and events.

Carla said...

Kathryn and Rick - yes, it is an interesting and unusual subject. It would have been helpful if the author had given more details about his "certain changes", because that also made me wonder about the actual events! I suspect he's compressed the dig somewhat; it probably took longer than the few months in the novel.

Connie Jensen said...

This sounds an interesting read Carla. I look forward to it, and to comparing it with Anglo Saxon Attitudes, which has similar themes, but based on a fully fictional dig

Carla said...

Connie - I haven't come across 'Anglo-Saxon Attitudes' - I will look out for it.