Author: Fiona Mozley
Genre: Fiction, Gothic Noir
Elmet, the debut novel of 29-year old Ph.D scholar Fiona Mozley, is a world in itself. It sweeps across a haunting and beautiful landscape and tells the story of an unlikely family and their strong bonding.
I chose to read Elmet because it seemed the lightest in the pile of books that had been shortlisted for the 2017 Booker. Considered a surprise inclusion for the Booker longlist, it managed to make it to the final 6. The book may be light, but it packs quite a punch in the way of language and world building.
Elmet starts with an epigraph from Ted Hughes photography and poetry book, ‘Remains of Elmet’. It introduces Elmet as a Celtic Kingdom and mentions that even as late as the seventeenth century, it was considered ‘badlands’, geographically secluded and sheltering fugitives.
Elmet covered an area in what is now northern England, referenced as far back as the early middle ages.
The author, Fiona Mozley is pursuing a doctorate level research in early mediaeval history so it is only expected that her debut work would incorporate her area of study along with her own experiences that show up as themes of possession and ownership in the book.
Historically, Elmet finds a mention in early Welsh poetry and the landscape in the book reminded me of the wonderful classic, ‘How green was my valley’ by Richard Llewellyn, that I had read years ago.
Elmet starts with a run and a search across the country. It then backtracks into telling us the story of John, the fighter, usually on the other side of the law and his children, Cathy and her brother, Daniel, who is the narrator in the book.
John, the larger-than-life fighter, with a fearsome reputation brings his two children to the woods and builds a house for them all. They live on the fringes of the society, though the reason for that is never convincing. They are away from towns and away from people, fending for themselves. The children learn the skills that their father imparts. But, they run into trouble over the land that they occupy. A landlord intrudes upon their world and thus begins the fight to reclaim their home.
The family stays close through the tribulations and they fight for each other till the very end, even when all seems lost.
Elmet is more about the countryside and its beauty. It starts slow, casting a loving eye on the landscape. It is only after many many pages that the characters come into focus and we get a feel of their emotions and their perceptions. The pace stays languid and the conflict builds slow. Unexpectedly, in the last quarter, the book finds steam and chugs ahead.
What works well
Elmet is an unfamiliar setting of wild Yorkshire landscape, but the stranger it was, the more I sank into it, absorbing it all. I built their world in my head, seeing it clearly through narration.
The house that John builds with his own hands is described so lovingly.
“Waiting is what a true house is about. Making it ours, making it settle, pinning it and us to the seasons, to the months and to the years.”
I knew each crack in the walls of the house and the trees in the copse, even the one mutilated by the lamps at Christmas. They live near railway tracks, which are what Daniel follows as he goes for a search, through the book.
“We heard them often enough: the hum and ring of the passenger trains, the choke and gulp of the freight, passing by with their cargo tucked behind in painted metal tanks. They had timetables and intervals of their own, drawing growth rings around our house with each journey, ringing past us like prayer chimes.”
The central character, John is delineated very well and so is his daughter Cathy, who is his spitting image, in body and spirit. The child, Daniel, with his proclivity to Viviene and to learning and a warm home is drawn well. His longing for a motherly figure is touching. The scene where he spies on Viviene, her clothes and toilette, shows the guileless love and instinctive attraction to feminine things.
The physicality of the characters plays a strong role in marking them out. There is John, a veritable giant with calcified fingers and knuckles. Viviene has wide hips that Cathy hates, perhaps because it is an indication of what Cathy herself would become one day. As she enters her sixteenth year, Cathy becomes ungainly. She is not graceful any longer and the change in her physical appearance points to her volatile emotions. Daniel, living away from society and not having to conform to any rules for appearance and dress, has long hair, long nails, wearing midriff short tshirts, like a girl. It underlines his homely nature; he likes to keep a house comfortable.
The description of Elmet at the beginning, brought to my mind a place dark and forbidding. But the cover art is cheerful and uplifting.
What does not work so well
Elmet starts with a languid description and the setting is perfectly built. However the characters are brought on slowly and it is only after a while that we understand them and their emotions. The children are mere shadows in the beginning pages. It is when their grandmother dies and they keep a vigil, trusting no one but breaking down when their father arrives, is the place where the children acquire emotions and show vulnerability.
Many characters in the book are not explained at all. We never knew what troubles John so much or what is it that he should have told his children honestly. The children’s mother and her comings and goings, remains a mystery. At one point, Price is on the verge of talking more of her but Daniel changes his mind about asking about his mother and she stays relegated to the unknown. Viviene is another inexplicable character. A woman of the world, well traveled, with a wide knowledge of the sciences and the arts, she lives alone in the middle of nowhere. I could not make up my mind about her at all nor could I understand her disinterest and her motivations.
Many situations in the book are not seen through. The uprising of the serfs against their master had a promise that was never fulfilled. The theme of exploitation and class conflict stays underdeveloped.
The child Daniel, the narrator, grows up suddenly after his father’s desertion. This transition is a little abrupt. The 14 year old has a language that is beyond his years and his knowledge.
There is very little dialogue in the book. Elmet plods through a lot of description. And yet, inspite of everything, the few places when the characters do bare their souls, they bring forth truth which is incredibly beautiful.
Cathy says of her decisions and her actions,
“We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine.”
The action is gripping only towards the end. Till then, it looks like a meditation on the place and a little about the characters’ daily lives.
There are so many ways in which I felt shortchanged and yet Elmet is like life and like people; flawed but beautiful in its imperfection.
This debut novel about an inaccessible world, familial loyalty and the impact of unfettered violence on lives is beautifully written.
Read it for the brilliant language and for the joy of experiencing another world.