Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite

When the 2017 Man Booker Prize longlist was announced last month, it included a number of familiar names (including Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, which I’ve reviewed for Shiny previously). But there was also one entirely unknown quantity: a debut novel that, at the time, had yet to be published. Fiona Mozley’s Elmet comes to us from the ever-intriguing JM Originals, John Murray’s imprint for “fresh and distinctive new writing”.

An epigraph from Ted Hughes explains that Elmet was originally an independent Celtic kingdom covering much of Yorkshire, but also that the area’s rural landscapes remained a refuge for the lawless into the seventeenth century. We meet our teenage narrator, Daniel, following railway tracks north. “The remains of Elmet lie beneath my feet,” he says, echoing Hughes and underlining his own connection with this place.

Daniel then takes us back to when it was the three of them: him, his sister Cathy, and Daddy (their father is named John, but he’s always ‘Daddy’ to Daniel). They live in a stone cottage that Daddy began building on a piece of land in the woods. Their lives are lived to rhythms of their own: for example, having taken the children out of school, Daddy now takes the children to the house of his friend Vivien, where Daniel reads about whatever Vivien has decided is the subject of the day, and Cathy just tends to head outside.

Daddy makes a living from fist-fighting, and settling those scores that need to be settled outside the framework of modern law and society. He’s a hairy giant of a man, a larger-than-life figure in more ways than one. As an illustration, there is the scene in which Daniel and Cathy barber their father’s hair:

After our Daddy was pruned Cathy and I set down our scissors and passed a hairbrush back and forth across our father’s scalp and chin. As we did so he closed his eyes and tilted back his head. The beads of water on his face and hair glistened in the crude light from an oil lamp that sat upon the kitchen table and a kind of halo emerged around him as he relaxed each muscle in his body save those in his cheeks that tempted a satisfied smile from his plumped lips. I selected and unfolded a towel from the pile we aired near the stove and rubbed the crisp fabric against Daddy’s wet skin. He moaned with sedate passion.

Daniel’s narrative voice throughout has this precise, quite formal tone; it’s a striking contrast with the dialect of his reported speech. I’ve come to think that the tone of Daniel’s narration represents how close he is to the way he perceives the world. Most of what Daniel knows, he has learnt from experience – so he’s secure in what he does know (hence the stability of his narrative voice); but there’s still a good deal that he doesn’t know: “there was nothing of the world in our lives, only stories of it,” he says.

One of the novel’s undercurrents involves Daniel gradually discovering his own identity. His lack of knowledge about society gives him free rein to explore who he might be. He grows his hair and nails long, wears his clothes tight: “I wore those little T-shirts and those too-tight jeans and I left my midriff bare because I had seen my mother do this. And nobody corrected me. Or nobody noticed. Or it did not matter. Or I do not know what.” This may be one point where Daniel’s precision fails him, but even in his uncertainty we can see his character developing.

Of course, the real world will not be kept at bay from Daniel and his family forever. It arrives in the form of Mr Price, who owns the land on which Daddy is building the house (that’s if you accept the law of pieces of paper, which Daddy does not). The confrontation between Price and Daddy comes to represent a conflict between land-owning and labouring classes, older worlds and new. Mozley’s novel builds to a tremendous climax which I could scarcely have imagined when I started reading. If Elmet makes it on to the Booker shortlist, announced 13 September, I will be pleased and not at all surprised.

David blogs at Davids Book World.

Fiona Mozley, Elmet (JM Originals, 2017), 978-1473660540, 320pp., paperback.

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