Book Review: The Dig by John Preston (Other Press, 2007)

At some point during the pandemic, my husband and I watched the Netflix original film The Dig (Netflix, 2021) starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan. We were both quite taken with it. I immediately googled it and found that it was based upon a work of historical fiction of the same name by John Preston. My next step was to request a copy of the novel from my library.

After months of waiting in line for a copy of the novel, and then several weeks spent reading other things for NetGalley, I finally opened Preston’s slim book. What I found between the covers of this battered library paperback was a story just as intriguing and charming as the movie. Preston’s fictionalized retelling of the story of an archeological dig in Suffolk, England, was inspired by his learning that his aunt had actually participated in the 1939 excavation of an Anglo Saxon burial ship, discovered in a mound on farmland owned by Mrs. Edith Pretty.

Peggy Piggott, portrayed by Downton Abbey‘s Lily James in the film, was on her honeymoon with her first husband when he is called to Suffolk to participate in the dig. She is asked to help as her smaller and lighter frame was more beneficial in the excavated and delicate remains of the ship. Piggott was born Cecily Margaret Preston, and after divorcing her husband in 1956, had a second, unsuccessful marriage to Luigi Guido, a Sicilian. In her later years, she and her first husband, archeologist Stuart Piggott, reunited to share a post with a historical society in Wiltshire.

With the country on the brink of entering WWII as a backdrop, Preston tells his story in alternating 1st person narratives in the voices of Basil Brown, Edith Pretty, and Peggy Piggott, starting and ending with Basil Brown, whom Edith Pretty, the wealthy landowner, has hired to conduct the initial dig. The story moves along swiftly, with the main characters guiding the reader through the ups and downs of archeology as well as the ups and downs of relationships of the characters involved in the dig.

One of the things that I found so charming in the book is the genteel way in which Preston handles the relationship between Mrs. Pretty and her servants, both those inside the great house and those who work for her outside the house. They are all very protective of Mrs. Pretty, who was widowed at a young age and left with a small boy to raise on her own, and Mrs. Pretty, who by all accounts is acknowledged as the woman in charge, is truly gracious and respectful to them in return. In the book, Mrs. Pretty appears to be suffering from some malady that is not discussed. In the film this is represented more directly. Another slight difference is that Preston handles his aunt’s first marriage with great discretion, while the film does pull away the curtain a bit more.

Usually, I recommend that you should read the book before seeing the movie, and on only a few occasions have I veered from that. One notable exception is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. The Hitchcock film is every bit as good as the movie, and I don’t think it matters which comes first to someone unfamiliar with them. The Dig will be another exception to my rule. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book, even though I was “forced” to visualize the characters in the book with the faces and voices of the actors from the film, something I usually do not enjoy. The actors cast in their roles so perfectly fit the characters in the book it was no hardship at all to continue with them in their parts.

If travel is still out of the question for you due to COVID restrictions, take a literary trip to the countryside of England while reading Preston’s fine book, and finish off your getaway with a viewing of the Netflix film. You won’t be sorry.

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