Reviews > Published on April 4th, 2016

Bookshots: 'The Dig' by John Preston

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


The Dig

Who Wrote It:

A comfortable, calming sort of book with the additional merit of a truly intriguing subject.

London-based arts editor at the Sunday Telegraph and real life nephew of one of the archaeologists in The Dig, John Preston.

Plot in a Box:

The Dig tells a fictionalized account of the famed Sutton Hoo dig of 1939, which turned up an Anglo-Saxon burial ship. 

Invent a new title for this book:

The Dig is such an accurate description of the contents, I think I'll leave it be. 

Read this if you like(d):

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie.

Meet the book's lead(s):

The book is split into the voices of three narrators: Edith Pretty, the owner of the farm, Basil Brown, the excavator she hires, and Peggy Piggott, a young woman involved in the excavation.

Said lead(s) would be portrayed in a movie by:

Rebecca Hall for Peggy Piggott, a younger Maggie Smith for Mrs. Pretty.

Setting: Would you want to live there?

Normally, I would probably say yes to living in East Anglia. However, I'd have to decline based on the fact that The Dig takes place on the eve of World War II.

What was your favorite sentence?

They were like emissaries from another world, undimmed by the mass of centuries that had passed since they had been last seen.

The Verdict:

In the summer of 1939, widow Edith Pretty decides to excavate the earthen mounds on her property at Sutton Hoo in the hope that they may contain treasure. As the beginning of World War II looms, it looks like her curiosity will pay off when some remarkable finds emerge from the site. 

The Dig presents an interesting topic, but it's unfortunately slow to start. The first chapter walks the reader through Mrs. Pretty interviewing an archaeologist for the excavation, then proceeding to discuss his payment contract and shovel budget. Packed with realistic archaeological details, The Dig isn't clumsily written, it's just very, very straightforward. There's a lot of dialogue of this nature:

'He wore a bow tie.' 
'Did he now?'
'It had spots on it.'

It's almost as though the author is afraid to get too close with his characters, possibly hesitant to sensationalize historic details. That's an understandable impulse in a narrative based heavily on real events, but it makes for somewhat unrelatable protagonists. We see hints of more defined personalities, but their trials and motivations are always a bit too far below the surface to be extremely compelling. Mrs. Pretty's son appears to suffer from some form of ailment that causes her concern, for instance, and there are moments when it's implied that the two struggle to relate after Mr. Pretty's death. But again, the reader is mostly relegated to the outside of these relationships, as much a party to them as one might be to an argument between passerby on the street.   

This subdued style has a certain appeal to it as well; The Dig is a comfortable, calming sort of book with the additional merit of a truly intriguing subject. Preston has clearly conducted substantial research on the topic of the Sutton Hoo dig, even as the author admits to making some alterations for dramatic effect. It's an intelligent if occasionally dry evocation of a country on the brink of permanent change.

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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