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Thread: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

  1. #1
    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    Elmet by Fiona Mozley

    Elmet is a novel in search of a protagonist. It ought to be a man named John who has little dialogue and whose name is only used a handful of times. The narrator, John's son Daniel, calls him Daddy although he is too old and lives in too tough a world for such childish language. In some ways the novel's central character is Daniel's sister, Cathy. Her actions drive the plot though frequently from offstage--and the final resolution is not hers. Despite these contradictions (or perhaps because of them), the strengths and weaknesses of this family are the source of Elmet's realism--a realism it covets, dresses with violence, and sometimes loses hold of in its urgency to be heard.

    Elmet, which was short-listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, is the debut novel of 20-something Fiona Mozley of York, England. It's title is a reference to a Celtic kingdom in what is now part of Yorkshire--a land that held out as a kind of badlands well after England had grown up around it. Elmet aspires to be a hard-boiled crime novel of contemporary Yorkshire, but Mozley's sense of the land and the past--of the lives that imbue the land itself--gives it a mythic quality transcending the grisly tale she tells. "The soil," she says, "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." One gets the sense that Yorkshire was always this way--always Elmet.

    And heartbreakingly so. Daddy, a hulking brute with a criminally compromised past, claims a wooded land parcel with some connection to his late wife. From materials there--seemingly from the land itself--he constructs a "strange, sylvan otherworld," a shelter for his son and daughter "against the dark things of the world." Daddy makes his money through bare-knuckle boxing matches at illegal fairs. There is enough money in it to keep the dirty world from his children for a time --but only that. The results should have been predictable. "I see now," Daniel comments in hindsight, "that he tied us to everything he valued and feared."

    As it turns out, there is much to fear. Daddy's past comes calling in the person of Mr Price, a powerful landowner and organized crime boss for whom he had once collected debts. Price owns the land Daddy has claimed, but he is inclined to let it go providing he returns to his employ. Daddy is not above brutality (he is an illegal boxer, after all), but he's wise to the game of incrimination Price is playing and refuses him, bringing hell to his children's protected grove.

    The older teenager Cathy seems tough enough to endure the wrath to come. Perhaps she has grown up without expectations that a young woman would not be able to defend herself. But the younger Daniel is more vulnerable. Slightly built and gentle by nature, Daniel has never thought of himself as a male. He has never thought of his father as a male, either, nor his sister as a female. They have always just been givens in the oddly sheltered life he has led. Daddy never became John or Father or even Dad. He has always been Daddy.

    To Mozley's credit, she does not preach a sermon on gender fluidity or attempt to virtue signal to the reader. This is the more remarkable since the author's politics are soon identifiable as solidly left wing. Daddy does not wait for Price to strike first but hits him instead where he knows it will matter most. Renewing old contacts, he organizes strikes and non-payment of rents designed to bring Price to heel. Unexpectedly, Elmet becomes a political novel, with Daddy representing the raw power (not to say violence) of the workingman and Price the vicious thuggery of the corrupt landowner. As an American, I must in fairness step away from British politics to some extent. It seems clear to me, though, that the middle third of Elmet is a meditation on the mixed legacy of Labo[u]r politics. Mozley achieves this with respect but keeps clear of nostalgia, too. "It wasn't all that wonderful, all the time," a skeptical voice asserts amidst the camaraderie. "Those men who would come together so naturally to support one another would go home drunk and beat their wives...There are dreams, Ewart, and there are memories. And there are memories of dreams."

    All of this, of course, is headed towards violence, and Elmet delivers what it promises. But while jarring, the climax lacks the depth that the novel has led us to expect. For a few pages it seems to have become a Quentin Tarantino movie or worse--a violent manga. Of course those who enjoy such things will not be disappointed. Certainly Elmet cannot be accused of fizzling out.

    But Elmet harbors a deeper flaw. There is not a moment of humor or any break from its relentless political rectitude and the narrator's growing sense of despair. Because Elmet is no fun at all, its politics cannot be questioned. Its pessimism cannot be acknowledged with a rueful smile. There is no whistling in the dark that Mozley has cooked up for you. Elmet is a grim ride to a grim place.

    But that said, Mozley's voice is perfect for what she sets out to achieve, and her strong, dark metaphors are vivid and affecting. If she had tried for a lighter tone, they would have been too much. Only once does she make a genuine error--the sort of thing one doesn't worry too much about in a first novel. At one point, one of Price's less loyal thugs (an otherwise anonymous character) informs Daddy that a corpse has been discovered in the woods. He reports:

    "...his eyes were wide open, like they are sometimes, you know, on dead things. Animals, birds, people, the same. Wide open in astonishment; much wider than the eyelids could ever stretch in real life, like the lad wanted to capture all he could of the world, like he wanted to take a still image of that pretty little wood, the light coming through the trees, the little flowers beneath the ash and oaks, capture it and take it with him. Just that one still, wide-eyed picture. He used that last few seconds to fill his eyes with colour. But the colour from him had gone. And whatever shades he still held in his eyes, there were none in his skin."

    Now that's one thug who ought to quit his day job and take work as a poet. Worse still, he speaks quite like Mozley herself (or at least her narrator) does. And while it is affecting prose, this is not the time for Mozley to be showing off her talent--not while somebody else is talking. Yes, it's an amateurish mistake, but she only does it once, an editor should have caught it--and who really cares?

    I recommend Elmet to all who are not otherwise depressed (it's a bit of a downer), to those interested in labor/labour politics, and to any who appreciate well-written crime novels or good prose in general. Elmet is not a perfect work, but it heralds an impressive voice in English fiction.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 02-24-2018 at 08:06 PM.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

  2. #2
    TheFairyDogMother kiz_paws's Avatar
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    Excellent review, Pomp, as always! I am going to try to obtain this book from the local Library.
    Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty
    ~Albert Einstein

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    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    Thanks for reading my review, Kiz, and thanks for commenting.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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