‘I cast no shadow. Smoke rests behind me and daylight is stifled. I count sleepers and the numbers of rush. I count rivets and bolts. I walk north. My first two steps are slow, languid. I am unsure of the direction but in that initial choice I am pinned. I have passed through the turnstile and the gate is locked. I still smell embers. The charred outline of a sinuous wreck. I hear those voices again: the men, and the girl. The rage. The fear. The resolve. Then those ruinous vibrations coursing through wood…
… The next morning I continue on my way. The remains of Elmet lie beneath my feet’.
A Man Booker shortlisted debut and on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I had high hopes for Fiona Mozley’s Elmet. Set in an unspecified location in the Yorkshire downs, Mozley beautifully captures the landscape in which she sets her tale of family love and community conflict. As the narrator, Daniel, encapsulates the mood: ‘The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up through the undergrowth and back into our lives’. The downs – where Daniel, his older sister, Cathy, and their father, known affectionately as ‘Daddy’, have built their home and carved out a life – is haunted with tales of times gone by. Although the setting is quite recent, as far as I can tell, Elmet effortlessly evokes the Medieval, Celtic past of Yorkshire.
Moving to a remote woods in northern England after Cathy was reprimanded for standing up to some bullies in school, their father, John, tries to keep them separate from the world by living on the margins of society. In a house he built with his own bare hands, he teaches his kids how to hunt and scavenge for food, as well as how to make bows and arrows from scratch. They live a simple, quiet existence devoid of much human contact outside of their safe little bubble. Their father is a very loving and fierce protector of his children. At once a gentle giant but famous in the downs for his undefeated record of bare-knuckle fighting, he becomes the focal point of the narrative. Told from the point-of-view of Daniel, his 14 year old son who is, in stark contrast to John, a sensitive soul who can’t defend himself, it is clear that Daniel looks up to his father in awe and admiration. In his eyes he can do no wrong.
What ensues is a battle of landownership. The community, in which Daniel and his family have tenuous links, are mainly from the poorer, working-class echelons of society – they gather around the local men’s working club in the hope of gaining a few hours work doing menial labour, they gamble, drink and fight for money, and the land they occupy is owned by a small, harsh landowning elite. With old, medieval views on landownership clashing with more modern, capitalist ones conflict inevitably ensues. It is one of these landowners – Mr Price, described in a stereotypically villainous way – whose land Daniel’s home belongs to. As Daniel and his sister begin to realise what this means, the narrative takes a dramatically dark turn.
Although I admired Mozley’s ability to bring the Yorkshire countryside to life so vividly, I found the plot lacking in substance. It isn’t until three-thirds of the way through that the reader finally gets an idea of what the story has been leading up to til this point. There were a few twists and turns and the emergence of an unexpected but fierce heroine, which I liked, but I found some of the dialogue and human interactions strange and incomprehensible. The spell Mozley cast in the opening of Elmet, with her luscious descriptions of nature and references to Yorkshire’s Celtic past, was immediately broken as soon as the narrative jumped back to the time preceding the climactic events that ended the novel.
‘Elmet’ by Fiona Mozley was published on 27th July, 2017. Thank you to John Murray Press, via Netgalley, for the review copy.