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Fiona Mozley: Elmet
Elmet was a Brittonic kingdom, located in what is now roughly the West Riding of Yorkshire, existing between about the 5th century and early 7th century. This novel is set in modern times but is located in the area occupied by Elmet and Mozley may well be comparing the rough times then to the rough times now. The novel can be seen as having three acts, like a Greek tragedy.
The first act is, of course, the set-up. We follow Daniel (the narrator) and Cathy Oliver (they have their mother’s surname) and their father, John Smythe. The children had lived with Granny Morley, by the sea, and grown up under her care. Both their parents would come and go (separately). John was a bare knuckle fighter and a very successful one. He made his money from that and also doing other jobs where brawn rather than brain was necessary. Their mother, who is not named, seemed to have mental health issues. She would disappear and return, looking remarkably thin, and take to her bed. One day she left. Granny Morley received a phone call and told the children that she would be not returning ever again.
Two key events happen while they are living with Granny Morley. Firstly, when the children are harassed by a group of boys, it is Cathy (albeit the older) who deals with them and they cease harassing her and Daniel at school after that. The second event is the death of Granny Morley.
Following Granny Morley’s death, John decides to become a full-time father and the three of them move to a lonely hilltop somewhere in West Yorkshire. John sets about building a house for them, while they shelter temporarily under a tarpaulin fixed to two decommissioned army vans. The family keep themselves to themselves, though John seems to have contacts in the village. The children play in the nearby woods and Daniel tends to do the gardening, housework and cooking. Their diet seems to be mainly meat-based, as John hunts for their food, till Daniel insists on vegetables, which he grows and which John also buys. John sets them up with Vivien, an older lady who lives nearby, and it is she who nominally educates them. Initially, both go along with the idea but Cathy soon gets bored and she disappears, to go roving on her own, while Daniel dutifully and willingly stays behind and studies the books Vivien gives him, though the education seems somewhat less than formal.
John does seem to have been helping people in the village but we are unclear on other details of his life, till we move onto the second act. One day, the family gets a visit from Mr. Price. Mr. Price is a local landowner, a former employer of John (as a debt collector) and the owner of a large number of rented properties in the village, where he charges extortionate rents and does no maintenance or repair work to the properties. Anyone who complains soon finds that they are getting a visit from Price’s thugs. Price claims that the land on which John has built the house belongs to him. He is happy to let John stay there, providing that he come back to work for him. John declines. Indeed, he decides to organise resistance to Price and his fellow landlords and employers of farm labourers. Naturally the landlords/farmers do not take kindly to his.
However, what makes this book and what undoubtedly put it on the Man Booker longlist is the third act. The book completely changes tone and we have what can only be described as an explosive ending. We have had an idea from the beginning that something is going to happen as, interspersed with the main story, are small chapters, written in italics, which show Daniel fleeing the area. We do not know why, where he is going (except, vaguely, North) or what has happened to his father and sister.
This really is a superb début novel and deserving of being on the Man Booker longlist. (I must admit that, at the time of writing, I have only read one of the other longlisted books but hope to get to a few more). The first two acts, showing a man and his family who choose to live outside the system and can do so because of John’s strength, are superbly written. Interestingly, though the narrator is the boy, Daniel, it is the girl, Cathy, who comes across as the tough character, though we only see her through Daniel’s (adoring) eyes. She is in touch with nature, well able to fend for herself and not in the slightest interested in the intellectual world, unlike her brother. I have no idea whether Mozley had Cathy Earnshaw in mind when writing this book but there are some similarities, if only the tough Yorkshire grit.
However, it is the explosive ending that makes this book. It left me stunned in a way that I am not often stunned when reading a book and clearly showed that Mozley had been determined to end the book not with a whimper but a bang and she does it superbly. I do not expect it will win the Man Booker Prize but I would certainly not be disappointed if it does as it is a thoroughly original work and a first-class début novel.
First published 2017 by John Murray