Elmet is a hidden place and a place to hide. According to Ted Hughes it was the last independent Celtic kingdom in England and still exists in the vale of York, ‘a ‘badlands’, a sanctuary for refugees from the law’. Into this dark and foreboding kingdom Fiona Mozley places the action of this novel.
For the reader to want to find out what happens to her characters she must make them sympathetic and surround them in mystery and only gradually reveal their past and make known their qualities and fears.
Daniel (14) is the narrator, brother of Cathy (15) and the younger child of Daddy. We meet him first as he sets off searching for someone. We return to his search periodically. It takes us into the world we inhabit. He is still trying to find her. The search, identified by italics, is necessary to save Daniel’s life and for the reader to understand the events described. We come to see that it takes place after the events of the narrative
In the main plot the family are close-knit. We meet them as Daddy is building a house for them in the woods. We learn that Daddy is a huge and solitary man, who does not like company, except for his two children. And we learn that he is handy with his fists. It soon emerges that he is extremely strong and that he is a man with a great deal of anger. And he has a strong desire for things to be done right.
Cathy is more ephemeral, with a fierce independence, like a hare.
When she darted I could barely see her but when she stopped for a moment she was the stillest thing for miles around. Stiller than the oaks and pines. Stiller even than the rocks and pylons. Stiller than the railway tracks. (5)
The family is close-knit, but motherless. They do not talk much. But they live together peaceably and with love.
And then there is Mr Price, the smooth, wealthy dangerous nemesis of Daddy. He is of our world, a landowner and landlord, a driver of range rovers, and a man who can afford to buy the law and the muscle to enforce his will.
The tensions are set: the commercial against the natural world, money against brawn and even, later on, guile against scheming and female against rapacious male.
There are many mysteries in the plot of Elmet. Why have this damaged family built their house and decided to live in the liminal copse? What happened to their mother? How will the children be raised? What is there between Price and Daddy that will result in death?
The narrative carries us forward, pulling back the corners of the darkness to reveal the answers to our questions. But only just enough is revealed to make us think that Daniel and Cathy and Daddy remain in great danger. And the plot moves relentlessly to its climax.
There are two scenes of great violence in this novel. Daddy is a huge man who has earned his living by fighting and intimidating people. He has given up being the muscle for the rich. Indeed he organises resistance to the hated and exploitative local landlords. Price offers the family and neighbours a deal if Daddy will fight an unknown opponent, and this takes place in a clearing in the woods, out of the sight of the law. The description, told from Daniel’s point of view, is carefully handled but brutal. There is blood and teeth, but nothing that isn’t justified by the context of the novel.
The final climax is similarly handled, so that in a scene of confusion and quick changes of power and attack, the reader follows the action and the fears of the family, together and separately. I admire Fiona Mozley’s powers of description.
I found this to be an excellent book, especially because it challenged my naïve beliefs in what is good and right, and bad and wrong and the value of the law. And my ignorance of what lies beyond and beside the comfortable life that I lead. This tension, between the orderly world and life is illustrated by Daddy’s questioning about who owns the copse in which he has built their house. And by his reaction to a legal document about its ownership. Daniel thinks his father is having trouble reading it.
He shook his head. ‘No, lad, it’s not that. I can read well enough to understand what it says. It’s idea a person can write summat on a bit of paper about a piece of land that lives and breathes, and changes and quakes and flood and dries, and that that person can use it as he will, or not at all, and that he can keep others off it, all because of a piece of paper. That’s part which means nowt to me.’ (202)
There is a hint here of older, more established law – or lore – related to the land and its use and ownership. Older even than the Celtic kingdoms.
Elmetby Fiona Mozley, published in 2017 by John Murray. 321 pp
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017
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