Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Review published on October 4, 2017.

The media buzz when the Man Booker shortlist was announced centred around this young British debut novelist. Portrayed very much as the David amongst the Goliaths, this tactic proved to be commercially rewarding last year for Graeme Macrae Burnet (who I felt should have won the award) and this year it may also pay dividends as quality-wise, I would nudge this book ahead of the others I’ve read so far on the shortlist.

The title refers to the Vale of York setting, the area of the last independent Celtic kingdom which a quote from Ted Hughes at the start of the novel refers to as traditionally “a sanctuary for refugees from the law”. Mozley places her novel in the modern-day but this is still a tale of outsiders and the immediate association with Hughes feels appropriate as this book shares the nature-based, naturalistic, elemental power of much of his poetry.

I was admittedly initially resistant. I tend to balk at openings which are in italics and place an unknown character in a first-person narrative walking or running through woodland with in this case “The remains of Elmet lay beneath my feet.” Once the plot kicks in, however, I’m fine with the lyrical narrative style and evocative descriptions. It’s just that I like to know where I am at the start of a book and the first few hundred words of this opening hovers towards literary novel cliché.

All is redeemed, however, by the three main characters and powerfully, memorable characterisation. Two young teenagers Daniel and Cathy live with their father in a wood he has fashioned for them out of the woodland. “Daddy” is a powerhouse of a man, who fights for money and who has removed his children away from mainstream society to live very much on the land. The bond between the three is terrific and this main strength is recounted in Daniel’s tale, a youth so unlike his father attempting to find his place in this harsh unsentimental world where those from outside their family unit mainly threaten their existence. It’s powerful and haunting and as their place in the woods is questioned it becomes increasingly gripping.

It does feel like a book from a different era, perhaps a harsher 1970s world with main character Daniel as out of place in his world as Barry Hines’ Billy Caspar from Kestral For A Knave (1968). I’ve not really read a book like this for years, the nearest I could conjure up was Sara Baume’s critically acclaimed Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither (2015), which ended up in my end of year Top 10 and had the same lyrical, poetic feel that is rooted in the natural world with its depiction of a relationship between a man and his dog. Here Daniel’s trust is totally in Daddy and Cathy and there are times when you wonder whether this is such a good thing.

I do think that this novel will linger in my mind. It feels of less relevance to this particular time certainly than Ali Smith’s very contemporary-feeling Autumn but with that timelessness could come longevity and it might just seduce those Man Booker judges not distracted by relevance. It is what I imagine a “literary novel” to be and yet plot and characterisation gives it a commercial pull which I was both a little surprised by and highly appreciative of.

Phil Ramage 4/4

Elmet by Fiona Mozley
JM Originals 9781473660540 pbk Aug 2017

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