In the summer of 1939, as Britain prepares for war with air-raid drills and trench digging in Hyde Park, in the depths of rural Suffolk, an excavation of a very different kind is about to shake up Europe’s perception of its history just as much as the impending war. When local landowner, Edith Pretty, employs archaeologist, Basil Brown to excavate a series of large earth mounds on her land, little can any of them know that they are about to re-illuminate the Dark Ages. As history goes into overdrive around them, and those drawn together at Sutton Hoo become involved in their own emotional upheavals, gradually, painstakingly, with many setbacks and a few blinding revelations, one of the most important, enigmatic and beautiful archaeological discoveries of modern times is laid bare.
The discovery of the Anglo Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in the Deben valley hardly needs the attentions of a novelist to make it any more dramatic than it was. A visit to the site and a tour of its treasures make the hackles rise; you instinctively know you are in the presence of something magical. That said, John Preston has written a wonderful novel about it, excavating the lives of those involved with as much care and precision as they applied to the dig and fashioning from them a small jewel of a book. Not a word is out of place in his meticulously observed account of these variously repressed lives, of Edith’s anxiety for her solitary young son as her health fails, or Basil’s inability to express any feeling at all, or brilliant young Peggy Piggot’s reluctance to step out of the shadow of her husband and former professor.
None of these individual stories ends happily because they are all drawn from life, but what a legacy they left us, and what a skilful tribute Preston has paid them in this almost perfect novel.