“Helmet? Elmer? Ember?” My mom struggled to understand over a faulty Facetime connection as I raved to her about Fiona Mozley’s debut novel, Elmet.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, Elmet takes its unusual title from the Celtic kingdom on whose land the characters struggle in modern-day Britain. Mozley, a 29-year old Medievalist and graduate student, wrote the novel on her train rides between York and London, taking in the landscapes and mining them for stories. The land is central in the novel—almost as a character.
“The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up through the undergrowth and back into our lives.”
Distinctly British in setting and sensibility, but globally relevant in its telling of disenfranchised workers rising up, this Robin Hood tale addresses the tumultuous age of Brexit and Trump. Missing the preachiness of Hillbilly Elegy or the Americana of a Marilynne Robinson novel, Elmet offers a textured, sympathetic peek into the lives of the rural, remote, post-industrial poor.
Elmet is a measured yet fiery debut that addresses epic violence, overturns gender expectations, and traces the coming-of-age of Daniel, a skinny, tender young man. The story weaves in and out of flash-forwards, which pop up often enough to lend the story a consistent sense of creep. Peaking in hesitant moments of success, the story never feels fully settled since we know disaster is only steps away.
The narrator, Daniel, his badass big sister, Cathy, and their enormous father squat off the grid in a forest on the land once known as Elmet. The father (whom the teenaged children only call “Daddy,” but whose name is actually John) makes a scrappy living by fighting. Sometimes in public boxing matches, sometimes through under the table arrangements on behalf of clients, John builds a reputation as the most formidable fighter in England. He says of himself, in a characteristically straightforward manner: “I am the strongest, fastest, and toughest man in Ireland and Britain.” His children love him for it.
But the small family’s woodsy haven is far from an idyll. Soon enough, Mr. Price, a wealthy landowner with with two sinisterly handsome prep school sons, comes poking around. Like a feudal lord, Price threatens the family’s peaceful, though lawless, existence. Daddy refuses to cave to the modern capitalist system, rejecting paperwork and:
“the idea a person can write a summat on a bit of paper about a piece of land that lives and breathes, and changes and quakes and floods and dries, and that that person can use it as he will, or not at all and that he can keep others off it, all because of a piece of paper. My body is my own. It is all I own.”
Daddy has to fight for his family. In doing so, he both champions and threatens the depressed local community of laborers. The novel centers on the deep contradictions embodied in Daddy: an ethical hunter, advocate for underdogs, and loving father—who also can crack skulls. He occupies extremes. Daniel reflects that, “Daddy was both more vicious and more kind than any Leviathan of the ocean.” Eventually, Daniel comes to realize that fatal violence quenches his father in a way nothing else can. Daddy’s needs only expands as the novel continues.
Fittingly, the novel climaxes with ghastly violence. The book’s creeping build of atmosphere, which allows for its stunning peaks, is also a slight drawback. The first half of the book feels slow at times, since its main purpose is to set the stage for the novel’s jaw-dropping finale.
Overall, Elmet glows as a heartbreaking and surprising contemporary Gothic novel. Original and sympathetic, the novel centralizes violence not as gratuitous fluff but as a necessary fact of life. With this triumph under her belt, Mozley has a bright future ahead. But first, she can finish her degree — and turn thirty.
Elmet by Fiona Mozley
Published December 5, 2017
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