In The Long Dry, a farmer walks his parched fields in search of a calving cow who has gone AWOL. While Gareth is out tramping through woodland and bog on a long, hot and arid summer day, his wife lies in bed with one of her frequent migraines.
Not the most exciting of plot summaries is it?
Yet from this simple starting point, Cynan Jones weaves an exceptionally tense tale of emotional isolation and a marriage that is crumbling in silence and misunderstanding. It’s a topic that is treated sympathetically but not sentimentally.
The Long Dry is told largely from Gareth’s perspective as he searches for his errant beast. We learn of worries that his relationship with his wife Kate is coming apart. They seldom talk to each other now, suppressed anger and frustration bubbling beneath their encounters.
Gareth misses the carefree woman with whom he fell in love. He still loves her, wants her to understand that the physical changes in her body don’t matter to him.
The places of her that give softly when he holds her; that have changed and shifted through the years, as if titling with the changes of his own flesh, to be in tune still, as if he was the hard land and she the water that would always know it, however it changed.
He wants the old Kate back and as he walks through the fields, he fantasises about abandoning his search for the cow and rekindling the spontaneous joy of their early years together.
But he’s afraid. His wife suffered multiple miscarriages in their life together, each one causing her to unravel. He doesn’t know if he has the strength to go through that again. So he turns his back on any declaration of love and sets off once more on his search.
At times the point of view shifts to Kate whose interior monologue reveals the source of her own silent suffering to be a one-time lapse of judgment. Her subsequent guilt triggered migraine attacks and caused her to begin cutting herself.
She still loves her husband but worries that her feelings are no longer reciprocated because her body is beginning to sag. She never tells him of her feelings, putting more physical space between them by spending hours alone in her bedroom. Tasks she would previously have shared with her husband are now left to him alone to handle or to her young daughter.
It’s a very intense narrative, with all the action taking place in the farmhouse and the surrounding fields. The outside world intrudes only in fragments— a neighbour ploughs his field; two unnamed boys find an injured rabbit on a bank; the vet arrives to examine the family dog. The two children of the household, teenage son Dylan and young daughter Emmy, also feature briefly.
We also get to hear from the cow herself as she roams through woodland and bog, driven crazy by heat, thirst and flies.
She was walking on, trying to find a trough of water thinking I’ll walk on for a while but I ould just lay down and sleep and she didn’t know where she was. She had he droll, shaking head of an idiot. She was thinking about crashing herself into the bank and the fence to be insensibele and get out of the heat. and of doing things cows shouldn’t ….
This novella has an unusual structure. It’s delivered in very short chapters headed with different aspects of the farm or moments from the lives of each family member. So we get “Ducks”, “The Mole”, “The Farmhand” and “The Vet”, tied into a unified narrative by the plot line of the search for the cow.
There are broader themes as Gareth reflects on his father’s efforts to establish the farm and what legacy he will be able to pass on to his own children. But we keep returning to the relationship between these individuals and whether it can endure. There’s a suggestion at the end that there may be some lessoning of the tension between Gareth and Kate but if that is the case, it could be temporary. As readers we have been given privileged information of a heart-breaking incident that will very soon test the strength of their couple still further.
Rich in symbolism
This is the first novel published by Welsh author Cynan Jones and it bears the hallmarks of his later work: closely observed detail; sparse sentences, evocative language rich in symbolism and an affinity with the rhythms of nature.
Over the hills behind the farm the light started. Just a thinning of the very black night that made the stars twinkle more, vibrate like a bird’s throat, and put out a light loud compared to their tininess.
Often the significance and meaning of the symbolism isn’t obvious. It’s easy to work out that the “long dry” of the title relates both to the weather and the arid state of the couple’s relationship. But the symbolism of the cow isn’t as straightforward.
It is a metaphor for the missing element in the couple’s relationship? Something that can only be discovered with effort? Is there a connection between the cow’s her pregnancy and Kate’s miscarriages? Why is it a cow that goes missing — would it have made any difference if it had been a different animal?
Numerous questions but the fact that there are no clear cut answers and an ambiguous ending. adds to the pleasure of reading this book. It’s a beautifully nuanced portrait of the strains in a marriage conveyed in sentences that flow so elegantly and poetically you catch your breath at their beauty.