A powerful book about the nature of family in today’s society, Elmet by Fiona Mozley is also about our relationship with the earth, nature, and existence without the trappings of modern life. Except it is impossible to escape completely.
The narrator, fourteen-year-old Daniel Oliver, is walking north in pursuit of an unnamed someone. As Daniel walks on, we see flashbacks to what happened before he set off on his journey. Danny’s life with his sister Cathy is split into two parts: living with Granny Morley beside the seaside where their father and mother are, separately, occasional visitors to the house; then later, living in a wood with Daddy, in a house hand-built, foraging off the land. At the beginning the descriptions of the rural landscape made me think this was a historical setting but Elmet is set today, making the circumstances of the family more disturbing. They live off the land and the money earned bare knuckle fighting by Daddy, John Smythe. They live on the margins; the children are home-schooled, and receive payment in kind [a carton of orange juice from the milkman, chops from the butcher] for favours done. Daniel and Cathy visit a neighbour’s house each morning for lessons, though it is not clear how Vivien knows John or what favour he has done her. It is a story of hints and implications, expecting the reader to wonder and explore possible gaps in the children’s history without knowing all the facts. Sometimes this worked, at other times I felt it made me miss some of the subtleties.
The story gathers pace as the odious Mr Price, a local landowner, appears on the scene with his two equally odious sons. His mistreatment of the Smythe family is echoed by the exploitation of farmworkers and tenants not only by Price but by other local farmers and landlords. As the downtrodden gather together at the Smythe house in the woods, a plan is devised to face up to the bullies. Watching it all are Smythe’s two teenage children, almost but not quite adults, understanding some of what is happening but not the implications or cost. Both are still discovering their own identities and there is a degree of gender confusion; while Cathy prefers the outdoors and reacts first with fists flying, Daniel is the homemaker.
While some of the characters are thinly-drawn – Price, Vivien – Mozley writes poetically about the wilderness of nature, the trees, plants and animals, the passing of the seasons. She creates a visual picture of the house in the woods, of Cathy plucking a mallard, of Daniel cooking eggs and bacon. But for me the plot stumbles rather than flows and would have been helped by a little more exposition about the children’s mother and why their father is determined to take them away from their regular lives. Though Daniel’s observations are beautiful he is an unconvincing narrator, his voice too mature and sophisticated for a home-educated teenager. The transition from his thoughts – “It was as if Daddy and I had sprouted from a clot of mud and splintered roots and they had oozed from pure minerals in crystalline sequence” – to vernacular dialogue and the use of ‘wandt’, dindt’ and ‘doendt’ jarred.
The book closes without a natural ending, simply a pause in proceedings, as life meanders its course for Daniel. An elegiac read, beautiful if flawed, it covers a lot of moral questions for today. Families living on the margins of society and their right to choose to live how they want, the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, family love and loyalty when faced with extreme threat, and what happens when you take justice into your own hands. A promising debut. Shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize.
‘Elmet’ by Fiona Mozley [UK: John Murray]
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