Saturday, 21 October 2017

Elmet by Fiona Mozley   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Elmet was the name given to a separatist Brittonic kingdom that flourished in what is now Yorkshire from the 5th century CE until the early 7th, when it was destroyed by the neighbouring Anglian kingdom of Northumbria. As well as studying for her doctorate in early medieval history, Fiona Mozley grew up in Yorkshire and has written a remarkable (Man-Booker-shortlisted) first novel set on the outskirts of a small rural community there. 14-year-old Daniel (the narrator), his 15-year-old sister Cathy and their father squat in a copse on land that had belonged to the children’s mother, in a house built by Daddy, beyond the notice of the community (other than Vivien, a woman from whom Daniel learns a love of literature, and Mr Price, the landowner). Daddy’s immense physical strength and mental tension have earned him a legendary reputation as a winner of illegal prize fights, and as a heavy (an employment he has turned his back upon to protect his children in their woodland existence after growing tired of being treated as outsiders in town). Daddy and Cathy are brute phenomena, inexpressive, physically focussed to the point of fanaticism, amoral forces akin to earthquakes or lightning, survival engines, whereas Daniel is altogether softer, more evidently sensitive and impressionable. The past-tense portions (the majority) of the book are full of Daniel’s luminescent descriptions, with indelible details and observations that reveal information to the reader beyond the knowledge into which Daniel is emerging (knowledge of himself and of ‘what life has to offer’ (largely injustice, class prejudice and exploitation at the hands of the landowners, resulting in a form of modern feudalism unmitigated by reciprocal obligation)). Beneath the immediacy of the narrative, the reader can sense deep threat like a bowstring being drawn, the tension increasing as the narrative develops, fed by the sadistic Mr Price, towards the terrible moment at which, when the tension can no longer be borne by the reader or by the narrative or by the characters, all that tension is discharged in an episode of near-mythic violence for which Mozley can be justly compared with Cormac McCarthy. This moment explains the present-tense frame narrative, dispersed throughout the novel, in which Daniel is travelling and searching for his sister. Elmet is at once both delicately beautiful and compellingly brutal, and is entirely memorable because of this.

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