John Preston’s fourth novel is a quiet dramatisation of the famous Sutton Hoo dig of 1939. Known as ‘the British Tutankhamun’, the excavation in Suffolk uncovered several Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, including one magnificent royal ship burial, and was thrown into relief in September that year by the outbreak of the second world war. The author exploits his setting subtly, as his fragile characters contemplate their lives in the face of history. It’s all a far cry from the mischievous humour of his last novel, Kings of the Roundhouse.
Preston approaches the drama of the excavation, as it develops over the summer months, through the eyes of three of the people involved: Edith Pretty, the widowed owner of Sutton Hoo House, on whose land the burial mounds lie; Basil Brown, the local, self-taught archaeologist she hires to initiate the dig but who is pushed aside when presumptuous dignitaries swarm to the site; and Peggy Piggott, the sturdily built, sensitive wife of one of the archaeologists brought in to help. The novel is made up of five long chapters, one narrated by Peggy and two each by Basil and Edith.
Edith Pretty’s husband has died five years previously; she makes secretive, forlorn visits to a medium in London in the hope of being put in touch with him. What’s more, her sadness is compounded by the alienation she feels from her young, and only, son Robert, to whom she gave birth at the age of 47. Basil Brown is a good, simple enough man; his work, and his wife May, form the limits of his horizon. He is demoted to menial shovelling duties, though, just when his own hard work looks like getting results. Meanwhile, Peggy Piggott and her archaeologist husband, Stuart, are on their honeymoon when they’re called in to help with the dig. Peggy is apprehensive about married life; she doesn’t know how to please her conservative husband, and hesitantly reassures herself that ‘shared interests’ have something to do with it.
As the group contemplate the sheer scale and archaeological wealth of the undisturbed burial ship below their feet, their excitement increases, whilst warplanes circling above their heads herald an unquiet future. What the dig means to each of them personally is gradually, gently made clear — most poignantly in the case of Edith. Her instigation of the dig, it seems, results from her psychological need to come to terms with her husband’s death, to find out what, if anything, endures of us after death — a theme that recurs throughout the book.
The drama of the excavation itself is described with care; Preston keeps us hooked on its painstaking progress, with neat and direct prose. The success of the book, however, results from the delicacy with which Preston handles his characters’ emotions, and their unspoken fears and anxieties. He never displays outright but merely suggests, exposing, in the manner of one of his archaeologists, crucial fragments of interest here and there. This is an unspectacular but moving novel that coheres wonderfully as it progresses.