Throughout my reading of Elmet, a debut novel which has been a surprise inclusion on the 2017 Booker Prize shortlist, I had a nagging feeling that I’d read it before. This felt odd, because in some ways, most obviously in its scenes of violence and revenge, Elmet is unusual and singular – its climactic scene will stay vividly with me for some time. This vividness is probably what secured its place on the shortlist – some of its scenes possess a sharpness, a stickiness, which simply outmatch anything in some of the shortlist’s high-profile omissions, such as Zadie Smith’s Swing Time.
But still it felt familiar. Most obviously, Elmet was the subject of a series of poems by Ted Hughes, and this novel’s author, Fiona Mozley, includes an epigram from that work in tribute. She doesn’t include the following passage, although it ultimately explains her entire novel for us:
The Calder valley, west of Halifax, was the last ditch of Elmet, the last British Celtic kingdom to fall to the Angles. For centuries it was considered a more or less uninhabitable wilderness, a notorious refuge for criminals, a hide-out for refugees. Then in the early 1800s it became the cradle for the Industrial Revolution in textiles, and the upper Calder became ‘the hardest-worked river in England’. Throughout my lifetime, since 1930, I have watched the mills of the region and their attendant chapels die. Within the last fifteen years the end has come. They are now virtually dead, and the population of the valley and the hillsides, so rooted for so long, is changing rapidly.
Mozley’s Elmet is a patch of land in the corner of a vast holding which belongs to a local businessman-cum-gangster, Price. On this patch, in a handbuilt house, lives the novel’s narrator, Daniel, his sister Cathy and their Daddy. The children’s mother, it is heavily implied, killed herself some years previously; early on in the novel their grandmother, too, passes away. Afterwards, Daddy, a semi-retired bare-knuckle fighter and hardman, selects a corner of the land his children’s mother once sold in extremis to Price – and claims it.
Daddy’s philosophy of ownership is oddly pre-modern, given Elmet supposedly takes place in 2017. He reminds me of Buccmaster, the protagonist in Paul Kingsnorth’s remarkable pastiche of Old English, The Wake – and not just because his dialogue has some orthographic quirks:
“[…] I knew we could care for this land in a way Mr Price never could, and never would. Mr Price does nothing with these woods. He doendt work them. He doendt coppice them. He doendt know the trees. He doendt know the birds and animals that live here. Yet there is a piece of paper that says this land belongs to him.” [p. 121]
Price is the Angles, Daddy the Celts. Price is also, in a slippage not as wholly elegant as Kingsnorth achieved in The Wake, late capitalism, and Daddy co-ordinates a strike across the enervated local village which damages his antagonist’s business interests. In-keeping with a novel which takes its title from the name of a doomed kingdom, the powerful sense of community and hope this engenders is greeted by Daniel with scepticism: “I could not help but feel that they too were dancing in the old style and appealing to a kind of morality that had not truly existed since those tall stone crosses were placed in the ground” [p. 143].
Daniel’s perspicacity, however, comes and goes. The novel begins in the way of Sam Taylor’s The Island at the End of the World, with Daniel and Cathy’s worldview almost entirely dictated by, and limited to, the experiences Daddy provides for them in their Elmet. “He wanted to keep us separate, in ourselves, apart from the world,” Daniel tells us [p. 48], and, like Taylor, Mozley has a knack for capturing the voice of an adolescent. “Sometimes we were more like an army than a family,” Daniel adds [pp. 57-8]. “Everything he did now was to toughen us up against something unseen” [pp. 82-3]. This hero worship persists throughout the novel, to its very bitter end – even when it is clear Daddy isn’t entirely in control or wholly aware of the world around him.
Mozley interleaves scenes at Elmet with odd scenes of industrial espionage engaged in by the children, or lessons in nothing much at all by the only educated person Daddy knows, the eccentric and attractive spinster, Vivien; there’s a bonfire party in the village and an illegal fight Daddy allows his offspring to attend. We see all this through Daniel’s eyes, and it is essential to the novel’s plot twists that he is not as perceptive as he might be – even when the author plays fair by offering slim clues as to what is truly going on. If this puts us at something of a distance fgrom the reality of the lives depicted in Elmet, the novel remains squarely embedded within the genre of rural noir, and in this reminded me again of other novels, such as Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing or Cynan Jones’s The Dig. The claustrophobia evoked in those novels, however, is never quite replicated here – perhaps deliberately, given how taken with trees and open spaces its characters tend to be, but also possibly because Elmet‘s prose is often more than usually plain:
Caring for a wood means huge stacks of trimming get piled up around the place. In order to let new growth fight through, overhanging branches, crumbled bark and fallen trees must be cleared. Weeds in the undergrowth must be managed. The right shoots must be let through and the wrong ones discouraged. Hazel needs to be hacked back to the stem so that it sprouts forth again severally next season like the heads of Hydra. [p. 163]
This is how-to-guide stuff, really, and it’s sometimes hard to see what, other than its transparent clarity, recommended Mozley’s style so highly to the Booker judges – particularly when that purity is at odds with the narrative’s essential occlusions. The central character of the novel, ultimately, is not Daniel but Cathy, who finds herself at the pointy end of the oppression and will to power that seems to block off all routes of escape to the villagers. “If I had fought by any kind of rules I would’ve lost,” Cathy sighs towards the end of the novel [p. 269], and Elmet comes to recommend violent disjuncture as the only option left to its oppressed multitudes. Nevertheless, this approach is destructive beyond its targets, and though Price may be hurt by such actions so too will Daniel.
There’s a determinist despair to all of this which gives Elmet a certain power. “I mean it doendt matter, does it?” Daddy opines. “I mean that things will always be as they are now, I mean that there will always be more fights and it will just get harder and harder” [p. 41]. It’s this hard-headed quality, I think, which has secured it a place on the Booker shortlist – from a certain perspective we live in times rather suited to novels of frustration and failure. That said, Mozley never quite emerges from the shadow of her influences. She may still do so, and here is a novel that marks her as a voice to watch; but it’s hard to see how Elmet deserves its place on the shortlist over another inventive and political and arresting longlisted novel of opression: The Underground Railroad.