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Book Review – The Dig, John Preston

May 22, 2015


I know, I was surprised too! It was back in November of last year when I was talking about films that I confessed my inability to get past the first page, but I’m nothing if not dedicated to this blog (or incredibly stubborn, take your pick) and the critical acclaim made me think I must be missing something. The words ‘evocative’ ‘nuanced’ ‘absorbing’ and ‘insightful’ are repeatedly used, reviewers praise his discussion of inter-war class tensions and commend Preston’s focus on love, impermanence and grief through the medium of the 1939 Sutton Hoo excavations. The back cover blurb promises great excitement:

‘Summer, 1939. While Britain is busy preparing for war, on farmland around Sutton Hoo House in sleepy Suffolk Mrs Pretty has asked local archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the enormous earth mounds on her land. And what Basil finds proves earth-shattering. His discovery brings an invasion of academics and busybodies from London. Each wants to run the dig and no one wants Basil or Mrs Pretty around. Peggy, newly married to her university teacher, surprises everyone by making the first discovery of fabulous treasure, but away from the dig her world is falling to pieces. Why is her husband behaving so coldly towards her?

While the clouds of war thicken above and jealousy vies with ambition to muddy everything below, a battle for the right to unearth an invader from another age begins in earnest…’

Now, I’m aware I’m probably not the best person to review this novel, before I moved over into the history of archaeology I was very interested in Anglo-Saxon archaeology, Sutton Hoo is a site about which I know a great deal. Also, as part of my history research I interviewed Stuart Piggott and Peggy Guido, two of the archaeologists who appear as characters here, and inevitably we discussed the Sutton Hoo dig in some detail. Plus, nuances? I have two children if you’re not shouting then I’m not going to be able to hear you. I don’t do nuanced anymore! But, this week I decided to ignore my misgivings: John Preston writes for the Sunday Telegraph and I was intrigued by an outsider’s view of the excavation and, because of the rave reviews, expected insights into these people, an evocation of the dig’s notoriously difficult politics. Why else fictionalise famous people and a well-known event unless it’s to suggest new interpretations? Additionally Preston is Peggy Guido’s nephew and although he says he’d been unaware of her involvement with Sutton Hoo until several years after she died, I assumed he’d have family information that would shed new light on her and on Stuart Piggott.

I was going to give a detailed analysis of how exactly Preston fails to do any of this, critiquing his style of writing and character portrayal, but you know something? I can’t be bothered! The characters are one dimensional at best. We learn nothing we didn’t already know about either the excavation or the people concerned. This ‘engaging’ ‘engrossing’ and ‘nuanced’ work tells us Mrs Pretty missed her husband and worried about her son; Basil Brown was doing an excellent job but despite his integrity and honesty he was pushed out by the academics; Charles Phillips was an overbearing, humourless oaf; Stuart Piggott had no sexual interest in his wife and only came alive on excavations; Peggy was young, gauche and realising she’d made a mistake in marrying Stuart. Oh, and a war’s about to happen so all their feelings and problems are insignificant, throw in a bit of tempus fugit reflected by the burial and that’s as nuanced as it gets. I could go on and discuss the mish mash of Sutton Hoo fact and Preston’s unconvincing fiction, the incorporation of other archaeological events – the section collapse which injured Bushe Fox, TE Lawrence’s fatal motorcycle accident – or why Preston felt it necessary to alter the whole relationship between Stuart Piggott and Peggy Guido by making Stuart Peggy’s university professor. But, like I said, I can’t be bothered to type it all out. What I will say is that it’s a good thing Peggy Guido was dead when this was published, she’d have hated it! John Preston’s aunt was a far more interesting person than this wishy washy school girl and if that’s the best he can do in fiction I won’t be hunting out any of his other books or articles.

To end on a positive note, isn’t the original cover beautiful? I need to hunt down a copy so I can find out who the artist is.


Have a great weekend, I’m off to read something less infuriating.


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