John Preston’s great idea has been to tell the story of one of the most dramatic discoveries in British archaeology – that of the Sutton Hoo burial ship and associated treasures in Suffolk, on the eve of the Second World War – and yet tell it as a quiet, contained and dryly funny chamber piece, with a small cast of eccentric and appealing characters. There’s Edith Pretty, the landowner of the site, whose desperate visits to a medium in London to contact her dead husband neatly echo the whole business of archaeology, as well perhaps as the belief systems of the pagan-Christian Angles buried beneath the sandy Suffolk soil. There’s Peggy Piggott – in reality she was John Preston’s aunt – whose marriage, and growing realisation of its barrenness, is beautifully drawn. And there’s the chief digger himself, Basil Brown, who rarely changes his clothes and smells like a silage heap on fire, or something like it.
It’s a charmingly modest and limpid novel, its style and technique the very opposite of flashy and overbearing: perfectly suited to a more self-effacing age, when parents really did admonish their children: ‘Don’t draw attention to yourself’, rather than take pride in them appearing on Big Brother and fornicating with