“What are you, Daniel?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What are your father and sister?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Well, if you don’t, then how can I? But I do know they’re fanatics. When they care about something, whatever it is, they care about it to the full. They care about it as much as anyone can. They don’t pretend, like an actor would. They’re not concerned with being seen to be doing something. They just do it.”
― Fiona Mozley, Elmet
Fiona Mozley’s debut novel has been described as “rural noir,” a descriptive I can’t improve upon. Living deep in the woods, insulated from mainstream society, siblings Daniel and Cathy live with their gigantic, physically powerful father John in a home built themselves.
They’re not rabid survivalists convinced the world is inherently evil. Rather, they’ve chosen to make their lives on the outskirts, becoming self-sufficient as possible. They hunt and grow their own food, heat their home using fuel from the woodland around them, and their father sends them to a neighbor woman to teach what he cannot, substituting for school.
The children live a pagan-like existence in the woods, Cathy especially. She blossoms in the outdoors, rambling the woods. Daniel’s more content indoors. Fluid in gender, Daniel, it’s hinted, is quite possibly transgender. Fascinated with their neighbor and teacher Vivien, he’s not so much sexually interested in her – though he sees her beauty – as he is entranced by female trappings: silky clothing that feels like liquid on the skin, makeup, fragrance. Growing up isolated, he asserts the’s never given much thought to anyone’s gender, himself growing his hair long, wearing cropped t-shirts and tight jeans. No one in their home gives much care about appearance.
From The Guardian 9 August 2017:Elmet possesses a rich and unfussy lyricism. Simple, homely food – baked potatoes and cups of tea – are described in such a way as to provoke longing. Dialect is put on the page with a deft touch: the way in which Yorkshire speech swallows the ends of words is most apparent in negative verb contractions, so we have “doendt” for doesn’t and “wandt” for wasn’t. Otherwise, the terms are unobtrusive: we are familiar with things going “tits up” and the occasional “wrong’un”. Above all, nature – flora, fauna, muck, blood and mineral – is lovingly described and allowed its head, whichever way that head turns. Daniel, who wears his hair and nails long and his T-shirts midriff-short, is seen by Daddy as a strange kind of boy because he enjoys domestic chores. Cathy, an electric and vengeful revenant of the Brontëverse, says to her brother: “I’m angry all time, Danny. Aren’t you?”
Their mother is a shadowy figure who shows up intermittently in the beginning of the book. She floats in and out, coming home to sleep for days and have her clothes washed, floating back out god knows where. One day, she’s gone for good. It’s hinted she’s dead, never explicitly explained, but the children’s father and grandmother tell them she’ll never be back again.
It’s the evil landowner who proves their foil, disrupts their peace. As John and his family are squatting on the land, and don’t own it legally, the appropriately named Mr Price reaches the end of his patience. He visits one day, informing John he can no longer live as if the land is his. He must pay, though not in money. Mr Price wants John’s brawn.
“He will start by causing small nuisances for us. It will build and build until they become unbearable. He will make sure people in villages begin to freeze us out. They’ll stop serving us in shops and stop speaking to us. That won’t matter much. We hardly buy out and we hardly speak to anyone either. But it will be an inconvenience. That’s how it begins. Then he might send people around when we’re out … After that we would always make sure someone was here afraid to leave and so in that way he would have begun to control our movements Then he’d have dead rats thrown through our windows and dog shit left by our front door. Then they would start picking on you two when you are out alone.”
Years ago, John had been one of Mr Price’s henchmen. As a landlord, he often had to deal with non-paying renters. John, an enormous man more giant than human, was one of these. In order to stay on the land, John’s given an ultimatum: participate in a fight against a formidable foe, so Price can gain loads of money from bets, or take his children and leave.
Elmet is poetic in the truest sense. It’s wild like the Yorkshire moors, graceful and dreamy. There’s violence, but it’s done in an organic way. It’s an inevitability.
I found it compulsively readable, gobbling it in one evening, staying up ’til the wee hours finishing it. It’s been a while since a book has grabbed me like this, grasping my shoulders so tightly it all but left bruises.
And Elmet is heartbreaking. Again, it was inevitable.
Is this the Women’s Prize for Fiction winner? I’d be surprised if it wasn’t shortlisted, at the least. I’m not jumping into declaring it the winner, but it will be tough to beat its beauty and perfection.
Still, there’s a bit of wiggle room. The rest of the list is – minus Eleanor Oliphant, sorry – strong, and sounds staggeringly wonderful. I can’t discount anything right now, much as I loved Elmet.
Next up: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward.