When Fiona Mozley’s Elmet made the shortlist of the 2017 Man Booker Prize alongside Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, which I reviewed last year, I sat up and took note. Not only was Mozley one of two debut writers among a group of otherwise well-established writers like George Saunders and Ali Smith (the other being Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves), but her novel was set in a rural community in the North-East of England. I rarely come across books set where I am from, so I had to add it to my TBR.
The novel follows the lives of a singular family who build a home and a life for themselves by a copse of woods in a part of Yorkshire historically known as Elmet, described by Ted Hughes as “the last independent Celtic kingdom in England [and] a sanctuary for refugees from the law.” Protagonist Danny and his fierce, independent older sister Cathy are devoted to their Daddy, a champion fighter of few words who wants only to protect his children from the cruelty of the world. There are a handful of other characters in the novel, but there is only one that stands as proud and as well-rounded as this central trio, and it is not neighbour Vivienne, or villainous landlord Mr. Price, or any of the residents of the neighbouring village. It is Nature itself. The land on which the family live and build their home is constantly present in Mozley’s writing, a living entity that allows these people to reside upon it. A few weeks after the home is built, during a windy evening, we hear how the “the house was finding its position in the landscape, sitting down and relaxing into its trough, and we felt it sigh and moan for hours.”
And, just as the family are accepted by the land, they respect and defend it, especially Daddy. When talk turns to signing a document that would legally give them the right to live on the land that they are officially squatting on, he disapproves:
It’s the idea that 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.
It’s a beautiful statement from a man of few words, and it exemplifies Mozley’s talent for crafting the simplest words into sentences that demand attention and dignity for her subject matter, whether that is the wilderness or the working class. My favourite passage in Elmet is one describing the good fortune of Daddy’s friend Pete, who had achieved what few of his neighbours could: find steady, self-determined work:
For a time he did more than just live. There was pride, or something like it, and that was an almost-forgotten feeling in these parts. There became such things as futures and pasts and Peter began to take his place between them.
Because Mozley’s descriptions are so captivating, I thoroughly enjoyed Elmet‘s slow pace and gradual plot. For almost two hundred pages, the story unfolds slowly: some chapters slide back in time to explore Danny and Cathy’s early childhood, while others focus on describing a neighbour and a brief visit to them. Reading these passages, I felt like I was living with the family, spending leisurely evenings smoking and drinking outside the home they built.
Of course, this peace cannot last forever: the chapters are interspersed with flash-forward scenes of Danny heading north along the railway line, “the remains of Elmet [lying] beneath my feet.” Events begin to overtake the family as they suffer the consequences of taking the land back for themselves. This, I think, is where the book begins to weaken. The contrast of pace between the first two hundred pages and the final hundred is extreme, with a series of dramatic events taking place over the course of just a few days. It all feels a little rushed, as though Mozley had a limited space in which to tie together the threads of the novel that she so carefully introduced. It also comes as a surprise to find that those flash-forward scenes are not set years into the future, as the poetic maturity of Danny’s speaking voice in these scenes might otherwise suggest. In fact, the whole narrative takes place in under a year.
If Elmet ran to four hundred pages instead of three, and if the major events in the story were paced out more evenly, I think it could have been close to perfect. Even with these criticisms, it is still a beautiful, absorbing book, both for Mozley’s way with words and how she chooses to use them. The respect she gives to Yorkshire and its people runs through Elmet.