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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review of ELMET by Fiona Mozley

3.5 Stars 
This title came to my attention because it was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and because it appeared on a number of “best of 2017” lists.

Fourteen-year-old Daniel and his fifteen-year-old sister Cathy live with their father John in rural Yorkshire in a house which he built for them.  Daddy, as both of his children call him, is a bare-knuckle fighter of massive size but he is the proverbial gentle giant with his children.  They live in a “strange, sylvan otherworld” where he teaches them to be self-sufficient:  “He wanted to keep us separate, in ourselves, apart from the world” (48).  They have an almost idyllic life until the arrival of Mr. Price, a man who claims to own the land on which their home is situated. 

Throughout the book, there is a feeling that their peaceful existence will not last.  Daniel understands that “Everything [Daddy] did now was to toughen us up against something unseen.  He wanted to strengthen us against the dark things in the world” (82 – 83).  The author excels at creating tension.  When Mr. Price first visits the family, he says to John, “’Your children must be lonely away from school and anybody of their own age. . . . I’ll bring my boys up one time so they can make some friends’” (81).  His two sons have just been described as “two handsome, slick lads” (76, 77) so that innocuous statement is full of threat. 

Characterization is a bit problematic.  Cathy is fierce, resourceful and fearless.  Though she is pretty, she is very much a tomboy who wants to be like her father.  She takes Daddy’s lessons about self-sufficiency to an extreme; when Daniel asks her why she didn’t speak to her father when young men were bothering her, she says, “’Because it were my thing.  It were my problem to deal with.  I can’t always go to Daddy whenever anything happens.  I have to be able to deal with things by myself. . . . And Daddy won’t always be around.  And even if he is, it is my life and my body and I can’t stand the thought of going out into the world and being terrified’” (272).  There is a dark side to her personality; Daniel mentions that “a pretty face might not be closed around pretty thoughts” (7) and she tells her brother that she is angry all the time (149).  The problem is that she seems too mature; at one point she tells Daniel, “’No matter what they do to me, what happens to me.  I’ll be fine.  In my self, I mean.  They can do their worst and I promise you I’ll go somewhere else in my mind’s eye, for as long as I need to, and I’ll be fine.  An experience is what you make of it.  If you tell yourself that it means nothing, then that’s exactly what it means. . . . But if something happens to my body.  Well, I am able to put myself in such a position that it’s like it’s not really happening.  And if it’s like it’s not really happening that means it’s not really happening’” (278 – 279).  This does not sound like a teenaged girl to me.  And don’t get me started on her almost superhuman power in the climactic scene. 

Price, the landowner, is portrayed as pure evil.  He lacks compassion, exploits the poor, and takes revenge on anyone who opposes him.  He feels he is above the law; John tells a man that in a dispute with Price, he would never involve the police:  “’And I wouldt involve police anyway.  They belong to Price around here too.  Big ones anyway.  Police chiefs and councilors that I’ve seen driving up to manor’” (131).   There is one scene that shows he prefers his enemies to have a slow death (294).  He seems to have no redeeming qualities so he comes across as an almost cartoonish villain with no real depth. 

Daniel is the narrator and in his case, it is the lack of consistency that is an issue.  When he speaks, he does so in plain and simple language, usually in Yorkshire dialect:  “’She wandt very welcoming. . . . I mean, she was and she wandt.  She was polite and helpful.  As much as you’d expect’” (61).  When he describes nature, however, he uses lyrical language that differs so much from his conversational diction:  “The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed through the undergrowth and back into our lives.  Tales of green men peering from thickets with foliate faces and legs of gnarled timber.  The calls of half-starved hounds rushing and panting as they snatched at charging quarry.  Robyn Hode and his pack of scrawny vagrants, whistling and wrestling and feasting as freely as the birds whose plumes they stole.  An ancient forest ran in a grand strip from north to south” (5 – 6).  This is not the language of a boy who has had only sporadic schooling. 

The book is in many ways about class conflict, rich versus poor, landowners versus tenants.  Daddy, for example, claims moral right to the land:  “’Means nothing to me. . . . 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 floods 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).  Daniel even says, “I could not help but feel that [my father and his friends] were dancing in the old style and appealing to the kind of morality that had not truly existed since those tall [Anglo-Saxon] stone crosses were placed in the ground, and even then only in dreams, fables and sagas” (143).  John may be a strong man who can defeat all opponents in a physical confrontation but otherwise he is really powerless because he is a member of the poor class.

The climax, when it comes, is over-the-top in terms of violence.  It reminded me of violent scenes in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men.  The book could use a warning sticker about excessive brutality. 

The book is bleak.  It keeps the reader in suspense but leaves much unexplained.  Though this debut novel has the weaknesses of a debut, Mozley is a writer with potential whose future work I will read.