Author Fiona Mozley

2017 Man Booker Review: Elmet

31st August 2017

By Jill Glenn

Elmet, one of three debut novels on this year’s list, is set in rural Yorkshire (Elmet is the name of the last independent Celtic kingdom in England, that covered the area loosely identified now as the West Riding) and narrated by 14-year-old Daniel. Short scraps of a journey he is making alone, searching for someone, are interspersed with the main story – his account of his life with his older sister, Cathy, and their father, on the edge of society. ‘Daddy’, as his children call him is a big beast of a man, who makes his money as a bare-knuckle fighter, and has taken Daniel and Cathy from an ordinary red-brick home to live in a house he has built for them in the woods. Despite his physical power, though, Daddy is vulnerable. The land is not theirs, although it has a connection to the children’s missing mother, and its current owner holds all the cards.

This is elegantly and atmospherically written. Mozley has a particular gift for writing about landscape and she uses it sparingly. She knows when to describe, and she knows when to stop, embedding it into a narrative that flows almost seamlessly. There is violence and tension, and Mozley handles both with confidence, knowing just when to go in with close focus and just when to pull away. Despite the menace, despite the unbearable precariousness, it is a book full of love.

There’s a certain timelessness to it; if it weren’t for references to the Pendolinos that pass by on the East Coast Main Line, two fields away from the family’s ash copse home, or to the Euromillions Lottery, or to fighting in Iraq and Bosnia, we could be back in the 1950s or 60s. Mozley’s reticence over the specific date works well, though, emphasising Daniel and Cathy’s disconnection from the mainstream and reinforcing their strong familial bond. The children are independent and resilient. Daniel rather yearns for the conventional, remembering their early childhood with their grandmother with detailed affection; he enjoys home-making, and talking with Daddy’s friend Vivien, who occasionally teaches them; Cathy, who has something of the wild, free-spirited Cathy of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights about her, is less fettered and more curious. They adore their father.

This isn’t a perfect novel, although it’s very pleasing. There are loose ends – some merely intriguing, some more annoying – and the occasional infelicitous sentence, along with the odd echo of a more journalistic or academic style, which perhaps betrays the fact that Mozley is currently working on a PhD; her subject is the concept of decay in late-medieval towns and eco politics (she herself describes it as ‘niche’) and her thoughts on the distribution of wealth and property ownership underpin the story. But for all its little failings Elmet is a huge success: a poignant contemporary tale of dispossession and disfunction, family and fear, that has been cleverly conceived and carefully, lovingly told.

Elmet comes to the market courtesy of JM Originals, a list from publisher John Murray: ‘a home for fresh and distinctive new writing; for books that provoke and entertain’. It hits the brief perfectly.

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