A finalist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, Fiona Mozley’s Elmet is a haunting book that continues to linger long after the final word has been read. What makes this such an impressive novel is Mozley’s ability to generate and sustain an atmosphere of impending catastrophe.
The narrative is straightforward. A father and his two children, fourteen-year-old Daniel and fifteen-year-old Cathy, build a home on land that previously belonged to the children’s mother. They are self-sufficient and depend on each other to build their home and grow their own food. They limit their interactions with outsiders. The father is a burly giant who made a living as a prize-fighter. He is protective over his children, treats them with kindness, teaches them the survival skills of animal trapping and foraging, all the while instilling in them a respect for nature. The mother is absent, appearing intermittently in the children’s lives before finally disappearing for good. It is after her last disappearance and the death of their grandmother that the father decides to relocate and build the home for his children.
The lifestyle sounds idyllic in many ways. But from the beginning, Mozley establishes a foreboding atmosphere that intensifies as the novel progresses. The mother’s previous appearances, disappearances, and final exit are never fully explained. The father sometimes vanishes for several hours at a time without informing his children of his whereabouts or activities. Young Daniel seems to be struggling with his sexuality. He has the homemaker instinct, assuming the responsibility for cooking, cleaning, and decorating the home to create a welcoming environment. Cathy exudes a toughness and staunch determination. Plagued with the anxieties and frustrations of her physical maturity, she is fiercely protective of her brother and views outsiders with suspicion.
Into this environment intrudes a wealthy and powerful landlord who accuses the family of squatting on his land. He has the paper work to prove it, claiming he purchased the land from their mother when she needed money. The clash escalates into a class conflict with landowner versus tenants, business owner versus laborers. The situation rapidly deteriorates, going from bad to worse until the final climactic and bloody crescendo.
Although the novel has its strengths, it also has a few noteworthy weaknesses. The story is told from the first-person point of view of Daniel. But there is an incongruity between the internal thoughts and fluidity of his narrative voice with his outward speech. Daniel’s interiority is relatively sophisticated, profound, reflective, and mature—qualities not evident in his actual speech, which is child-like and naïve. The problem is compounded by Mozley’s attempts to capture the dialect and inflections of the north of England. We are thrust from the sensuous and vivid description of the surroundings into a speech in which doendt substitutes for doesn’t, wan’t owt substitutes for wasn’t anything, and so on. Rather than sounding authentic, these attempts at capturing the Yorkshire dialect seem contrived and jarring. The climax of the novel stretches plausibility, and too many loose ends, relationships, possible connections, and mysteries hinted at throughout the novel are never adequately resolved.
These lapses do not detract from Mozley’s talent and achievement in this her debut novel as there is much in it to admire. The writing is beautiful and has a rhythmic, lyrical quality. Mozley’s descriptive and vivid language captures the sights, sounds, and smells of the landscape in rural Yorkshire. Her main strength, however, lies in generating a strong sense of atmosphere, an atmosphere that permeates the novel, gradually intensifying to its inexorable conclusion.
A compelling page-turner in many ways. Highly recommended.