ELMET by Fiona Mozley
Algonquin Books, December 2017
It was hard not to be curious about Elmet, this year’s wild card on the Man Booker shortlist that didn’t even have a U.S. release date until after the winner (Lincoln in the Bardo) was announced. I didn’t know what to expect from this novel, but maybe that was for the best, because what started as a rather unassuming story really crept up on me, and I’m finding this review particularly difficult to write, because I’m so in awe of the scope and composition of this novel.
Elmet (in terms of theme more than style of prose) is All We Shall Know meets All the Birds, Singing, meets Wuthering Heights – a gothic-inspired novel set in the lawless outskirts of British society. The story’s setting, an unnamed rural town, is located on a site once known as Elmet, a Celtic kingdom now a part of west Yorkshire. Fiona Mozley’s sensory descriptions are so vivid, I felt like I was transported straight into the heart of this rustic setting. The novel is narrated by 14-year-old Daniel, an effeminate boy who lives in a cabin in the woods with his tomboy sister Cathy and his father John, an almost paradoxically sensitive and brutal bare-knuckle fighter referred to only as ‘Daddy.’ Throughout the book their peaceful existence is threatened by a local landowner and his family, and the conflict between the two parties crescendos into an inevitable and harrowing conclusion.
Though Elmet is a quiet and subtle pastoral tale, it’s also an absolute powerhouse meditation on violence, gender, familial ties, and societal views on morality. There’s an anger and a restlessness simmering beneath the surface of this positively humorless novel, but it’s not actually as bleak of a read as you might think. There’s a sort of innocence to Daniel’s narration that doesn’t evoke pity as much as demand reflection on the lifestyle of this novel’s unlikely heroes. Mozley’s prose is lyrical and incisive – there’s nothing to do while you’re reading this book but give it your full attention.
I understand why Elmet doesn’t work for certain readers. It’s light on plot and heavy on backstory and its pace is slow, so if you aren’t sustained by its themes and characters, I can see where the word ‘boring’ may be leveled against it. But if you’re the sort of reader who loves a subtle and atmospheric story, this is well worth checking out. This is a solid 4.5, but the more I think about it, the more I like it, so 5 it is.
Thank you to Netgalley, Algonquin Books, and Fiona Mozley for the copy provided in exchange for an honest review.