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The Words We Do And Do Not Speak

Dom Hewett

Fiona Mozley
Elmet
JM Originals
2017
311 pp
£10.99 (hbk)

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is difficult for readers and critics to avoid glazing over at cries of ‘the next big thing’, but when a debut novelist in their twenties is shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it is worth paying attention. Fiona Mozley’s Elmet centres on two children, Daniel and Cathy, who live with their strongman father, ‘Daddy’, in an isolated Yorkshire copse. Their father makes a living with his fists, and illegal bouts fund a basic but happy existence until they are threatened with eviction by a powerful landowner, Mr. Price. Motivated in part by a decades-old rivalry with Price, their father reaches out to potential allies and orchestrates a campaign of resistance against Price and his fellow landowners. This central narrative weaves its way through the novel, occasionally dipping back in time or lurching forward to a post-apocalyptic present. While the reader follows the progress of the campaign, attempting to piece together the secret behind the disappearance of Daniel and Cathy’s mother, important events are taking place just out of sight, which Mozley alludes to by means of absences, evasions, and coded revelations.

In a novel which seems to oscillate between the contemporary and the premodern (its title refers to an early medieval Celtic kingdom in what is now West Yorkshire), Mozley excels at depicting complex, contingent identities. Elmet examines the fraught enterprise of constructing or recovering meaningful community in the context of an economic system which deals with individuals and their autonomous family units. Ewart Royce, a councillor and trade union official who has ‘wrestle[d] backward’ against the atomising forces of history, appears the ideal figure to lead the anti-landlord campaign, and combat the ‘slow rot of the decades’. He represents a community-focused spirit which disappeared somewhere along the way with post offices, council housing, and working mines. Yet Mozley remains alert to the dangers of romanticising a past which was far from perfect: a nostalgic Royce is reminded that the miners ‘who would come together so naturally to support one another would go home drunk and beat their wives’.

Gendered identities are explored in the characterisations of Daniel and Cathy. He longs for domestic comforts – cushions, books, and cups of tea – while she feels at home in the outdoors, among fields and woods. Daniel, who seeks ‘a kind of hearth and a kind of fire’, epitomises an alternative masculinity to his father’s gargantuan violence, while Cathy undercuts any expectation of feminine domesticity. There is a gruesome playfulness at work in the description of Cathy’s bruised wrist as a piece of jewellery:

‘the grey and yellow blood that settled there almost made a complete bracelet that seeped all the way around, like her skin was stained with gold’.

Yet Cathy’s mottled blood does not transform her into a religious icon, or a visual echo of the murdered Jill Masterson in Goldfinger, discovered statuesque, suffocated in gold. Cathy is a creation far from the virginal Madonna or Fleming’s disposable Bond girl. She resists categorisation, and wears her bruises with pride.

The fantastic and folkloric are in vogue right now. This summer will see Daisy Johnson’s debut novel Everything Under (a follow-up to her superb short-story collection Fen), and already in 2018 we have been treated to Zoe Gilbert’s unnerving weird fantasy Folk. While Mozley treads a more realist path than her contemporaries, there is plenty reminiscent of Fen and Folk in Elmet’s depictions of landscape. The house in the copse resides in a murkily sentient natural world:

‘The green mosses and ivies from the wood were more eager to grip at its sides, more ready to pull it back into the landscape … The house was finding its position in the landscape, sitting down and relaxing into its trough, and we felt it sigh and moan for hours’.

Throughout, Mozley’s prose is economical and neatly evocative – never more so than in descriptive passages about nature. Hazel is cut back ‘so that it sprouts forth again severally next season’, and dawn erupts ‘from a bud of mauve half-light and bloomed bloody’. There is a restraint and subtlety to the language, which shows rather than tells, drawing the reader’s imaginative sympathy. Like Daniel, thinking of his father, the reader dwells on the words that the novel ‘did and did not speak’, having entered fully into a skilfully-spun web of absences, evasions and silences. If this is what ‘the next big thing’ looks like, I for one will keep reading.

 

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Dom Hewett recently completed an MA in English Literature at the University of Bristol, and is currently working as a librarian in Oxford.

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