Man Booker Book Review 4: “Elmet” by Fiona Mozley

Well, I’ve improved on my performance of last year; I only managed to read 3.5 out of six of the books on the shortlist in 2016, but in 2017 I now have four under my belt with a week still to go! Book number four was Elmet by Fiona Mozley and, my goodness, it’s dark! I’m not sure when I last read anything like it, to be honest, although it reminds me very much of the Red Riding drama series which was aired on television in 2009 (I checked this fact and if you’d asked me to guess I probably would have said 2013/14 – tempus fugit!). That resonance could be down to the fact that it is set in the same part of the country (the Ridings of Yorkshire), but the book does have that same ‘Yorkshire noir’ feel to it, the hallmarks of which seem to be violence, corruption, poverty juxtaposed with crude wealth, and the bleak rural setting. Dialogue is mostly sparse, much is conveyed by a common understanding of the rules of social engagement, and by actions.

Photo 11-10-2017, 12 45 36The narrator and central character is Daniel, who lives with his father (always “Daddy”) and his sister Cathy (a nod to Wuthering Heights, I wonder?) somewhat on the margins of society. Initially, they live with Granny Morley somewhere in the north east, and seem to attend school regularry, though not particularly successfully; it is clear they are ‘different’ and considered outsiders, rather akin to travellers. Cathy and Daniel’s mother has been mostly absent, seemingly a troubled soul with mental health problems and probably addiction, but who then disappears completely, assumed dead. Daddy is a more reliable carer, though he too is frequently absent as he tours the country competing in illegal boxing bouts. He is at the top of his game, however, unvanquished wherever he goes, and seems to make enough of a living from this activity, as well as making plenty of money for those with sufficient funds to gamble heavily on his success. 

When Granny Morley dies suddenly, leaving the children alone in the house with her body for several days, Daddy vows on his return never to abandon them again, and is determined that they will live together as a family. They move back to Yorkshire and set up home in a copse outside a village, land that is said to belong to Daniel and Cathy’s mother. Initially, they camp, while Daddy sets about building a house  with nothing but his bare hands and materials they gather from the woods and cast off items. Daniel and Cathy no longer go to school, but after a time Daddy decides that the children need some sort of educating so he sends them to Vivien in the village, who appears to share some intimacy with Daddy, although the nature of this is never made clear. She too is a bit of a loner and although she never seems particularly enthusiastic about her role as educator she reaches a kind of understanding and accommodation with the children. Cathy never really takes to her lessons, preferring to spend her time outside in the woods, but for Daniel this time comes to be precious and he enjoys the cosy domestic setting and this gentler side of life. Daniel, we increasingly see, is softer, more fragile, physically and emotionally, than either his father or sister, and prefers more feminine company. While Cathy shares the outlook and preferences of her father, Daniel is said to be more like their mother; perhaps this is why Daddy and Cathy love him so much and feel the need to protect him so fiercely.

Thus the scene is set, and the first third of the book is spent getting to know the characters and the setting. The plot thickens when Mr Price enters the novel. He is a wealthy local landowner who owns the land on which the family has settled. He claims that it was signed over to him by the children’s mother in payment of a debt when she ran into financial difficulties, there is clearly some history with the mother, but, again, this is never made clear. Price presents a real and present danger to the family; he clearly is set upon a battle with Daddy, it seems likely that he feels threatened by this bigger stronger man and wishes to emasculate him through his power and authority. There are also Price’s sons, privately educated at some distant boarding school where they learn to play rugby and cricket. They have all the arrogance of their father but their Yorkshire grit seems to have withered. They are particularly interested in picking on the children, especially Cathy, who seems to them to be easy meat, although always out of sight of their father.

Daddy teams up with some of the local villagers and becomes involved in a dispute with a number of the landowners, who are said to exploit poorly paid workers and their poorly treated tenants. They gain some success, but at a cost. Price clearly feels he has leverage over Daddy and says he will sign over the land to the family on the condition that he fights one last bout. Clearly, Price has nothing to lose – he will gain financially from the event, has no interest in the small parcel of land at stake, so it means nothing if he has to give it to the family, and if Daddy loses, well, that’s a problem solved. 

The last third of the book moves at a rapid pace, and events unfold dramatically. This final part of the book is a real page-turner. I read the last 100 pages in one sitting and I was almost breathless by the end! The characterisation is superb, I felt I really knew who these people were by the end. The evocation of the setting is also brilliantly done; Fiona Mozley is a fine writer and it is hard to believe this is a debut novel. The time in which the novel is set is not specified, deliberately so, I suspect, since there is a certain timelessness about it; Cathy, Daniel and their father (and to some extent, their mother) represent those people who will always live on the margins, never quite prospering, always struggling, even if they were to play by all the rules society sets. The world is simply stacked against them, their type, their way of life. But what is also timeless is the profound love between father and children, and Daddy’s instinct to protect is felt powerfully throughout.

This is a dramatic and powerful novel, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s bleak though! Recommended, but don’t expect a traditional happy ending or all loose ends to be neatly tied. But that’s not life either, is it?

Are you ploughing throught the Man Booker shortlist? How are you getting on?

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