Elmet review: There will be blood on the Booker longlist
A marginalised Yorkshire family battle their community in a well-written but flawed debut from Fiona Mozley
Fiona Mozley’s book ‘Elmet’ has made this year’s Booker longlist.
What kind of novel makes a Booker longlist? Literary fiction is the bar, an increasingly wide bracket that can range from accessible to experimental. Typically it’s a combination of big-name authors, many of whom are previous winners or nominees, with a few debut or lesser-known writers. Last year was considered exceptional in its preference for debut authors and independent publishers. This year’s debuts selected for the 13-strong longlist are the acclaimed short story writer George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo”, Emily Fridlund’s “History of Wolves” and Fiona Mozley’s “Elmet”.
The question that starts today’s column concerns Mozley’s “Elmet”. In many respects, it is a fine debut but it has flaws and one wonders at its selection in a year that saw such super first-timers as Sally Rooney’s “Conversation With Friends”, Lisa Ko’s masterful immigrant story “The Leavers”, Preti Taneja’s “We That Are Young”, a mammoth retelling of Lear set in contemporary India, or the complexity of Gabriel Tallent’s teenage narrator in his upcoming debut “My Absolute Darling”.
The strengths of “Elmet” lie in Mozley’s expressive writing and her ability to evoke atmosphere and setting. Centred on a fractured Yorkshire family who live on the margins of society, the book is set in modern times but with an older world treatment of its themes of land ownership, justice and revenge. The father is a giant of a man, a bare-knuckle fighter whose gentleness at home shines from the perspective of youngest son Danny, the book’s narrator. “Daddy” builds the family a house from scratch on an ash copse near the east coast main line, “far enough not to be seen, close enough to know the trains well”.
An epigraph from Ted Hughes’ “Remains of Elmet” notes that the place was “the last independent Celtic kingdom in England”. This sense of an autonomous land is vividly related by Mozley. It is a community of mostly poor people ruled by a small landowning elite. Men queue up for underpaid menial labour at the local working man’s club. They gamble or drink away their pittance. They fight each other “when their blood is up”. What emerges is a harsh, almost medieval landscape where the ethos is kill or be killed. It is a lesson that Danny and his older sister Cathy have been schooled in by their father and proves a self-fulfilling prophecy by the book’s bloody end.
Affinity with nature
From York, Mozley went to Cambridge and is studying for a PhD in medieval history. Her affinity with nature comes through in striking imagery from the opening pages: “The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted . . . The calls of half-starved hounds rushing and panting as they snatched at charging quarry.” With its northern English setting, atmospheric writing and Gothic levels of violence and bloodshed, the book recalls another of John Murray’s recent debut successes, Andrew Michael Hurley’s “The Loney”.
But while “The Loney” is narrated by an adult son looking back on the sins of the past, Mozley’s Danny is for the most part telling his story as it happens. This proves problematic when the voice of a 14-year-old, semi-schooled teenager gives way to lyricism. Neighbours “intimate” instead of making suggestions; the family’s home is “our strange, sylvan otherworld”; the father’s fights are viewed through an arch perspective: “The cash had to be present, of course. To make it safe. To make it about business. To underpin the spectacle with something serious.”
Occasionally, passages in italics in some near future where Danny is destitute are inserted to add suspense or the benefit of hindsight but not enough is made of them to drum up sufficient mystery. Scenes are generally too few and fleeting, or in the case of one of the longer ones – a conversation with a worker at the club, for example – exposition-heavy, with chunks of information masquerading as dialogue.
Foreshadowing and backstory
The book’s foreshadowing is underdeveloped. A reference to a murdered girl at the beginning passes us by, despite the narrator having witnessed her last moments. Backstory is touched upon rather than delved into – an absent mother; a kindly granny; some scenes at school that prefigure Cathy’s “great and alarming strength”, referred to one time too many by her awestruck brother.
It is not until the book’s closing sections that the action truly becomes gripping. Mozley is to be commended for an excellent fight scene, a truly grim fallout that sees adult men viciously round on children, and the emergence, finally, of Cathy as a wonderfully original heroine.
Other positives are a good balance of Yorkshire dialect, effective but not overdone, the arresting descriptions of blood and gore, and the simple but psychologically astute reasoning behind Cathy’s actions: “He had many chances, I had one.” A Booker nomination can be a double-edged sword. “Elmet” is a laudable first novel, just not as worthy a contender as others in a year of strong debuts.