Thursday, 2 November 2017

Elmet, by Fiona Mozley

I would really struggle to place this in any kind of genre- I’ve heard Gothic Noir banded about, and that works, but doesn’t really capture the book’s preoccupation with nature, belonging and family, though the also important themes of conflict and male violence fit nicely.  As brutal and as violent as this book is, I couldn’t help but feel that this is how people are supposed to live. In houses that they build, eating things they catch, understanding the flow of the forests and the land.

It’s a beautifully written novel, with a striking turn of phrase and atmospheric prose. Elmet is a Celtic Kingdom, comprising of what is now the West Riding of Yorkshire- the  Ted Hughs’s ‘badlands’, the leafy sanctuary of Robin Hood and various other outlaws of folklore, though we all know that’s sacrilege and Robin was a Nottingham boy.

The story is narrated by 14 year old Daniel, a quiet, gentle boy that idolises his elder sister Cathy and his larger than life father, John aka Daddy. The three of them live in a rough house, built by Daddy’s hands in a secluded copse in an area that their absent mother grew up in- land that had previously belonged to her family but poverty necessitated the sale of. They live on hunted, foraged and traded goods, favours and bartered services. Previously, Daniel and Cathy had lived with their Grandmother- a somewhat odd arrangement that saw both parents periodically appearing then disappearing for long stretches. Both teens were bullied in school- Daniel accepted it as his dues, Cathy was more capable and inclined to fight back, getting into more trouble as a result because that’s how the world works. There’s an interesting commentary on gender, power and the victim/abuser relationship tied up in the characters of Cathy and Daniel.

Daddy is a huge, quiet colossal of a man with a fearsome reputation as an undefeated bareknuckle boxer. Though he speaks little, there is a barely contained rage simmering just beneath his surface- something that seems to be an established and respected fact to his children. Daddy is fiercely resolute in his belief in independence, in his and his family’s right to live how they do, where they do, with no interference. The only things he can allow himself to depend on are his fists and his family. Daddy moonlights as a bit of a Fists For Hire outfit, lending his imposing person and his unquestionable menace to the local population in return for favours. He organises and motivates the impoverished and exploited community into taking action against their bullying landlords by withholding labour and rent payments, lending the strike an air of threat and officialness that nobody else could provide. A single figure is able to empower and revitalise an ailing, fragmented community into something with agency. Price, the main landlord, farmer and cash-in-hand employer of most of the community sees this action as a declaration of war. Price is not only the owner of Daddy’s copse, but the two have a shared history that further aggravates their already poor relationship,  and events reach their tragic but inevitable conclusion.

Cathy and Daniel are close, each the other’s only real company and united in their status as outcasts, but they are nothing alike. Daniel takes after his absent and enigmatic mother; sensitive and thoughtful, intelligent in a bookish way. He avoids conflict, is satisfied with everything he has in life and takes care of the home. He is the cook, the vegetable grower, the neatener and straightener of the house. He enjoys being inside as much as outside. He's a compelling narrator, barley present but thorough in his narrative. Cathy on the other hand is volatile and by her own admission, permanently angry. She belongs outdoors, like her father. She is prepared to back up her beliefs and her judgements with strength and violence. Their differences are most evident when they visit Vivien, a friend of Daddy’s that has been induced to provide the children with some form of education. Cathy shuns her house, her possessions and her attention, preferring to roam the fields, while Daniel builds up an unusual, confusing relationship with her. 

Elmet is bleak and beautiful and a ridiculous accomplishment for a debut novelist. I loved the themes of conformity, family, belonging and conflict, and I think these were played out incredibly effectively against a backdrop of land ownership, ancient woodlands and the idea of legacy and revenge. A really unusual mixture of elements that highlighted the author’s background in medieval history brilliantly. I loved the characters and their odd, abrupt and dreamy narration of Daniel, a person so gently bewildered that the reader cannot help but feel sympathy for him and his eventual predicament.

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