Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 18, 2017

Elmet, by Fiona Mozley

From disappointment to elation! The 2017 Booker shortlist has its shortcomings (and I found the winner unreadable, abandoning it at page 62) but the inclusion of Elmet has brought a stunning new novelist to our attention. Fiona Mozley, says the blurb

… grew up in York and went to King’s College Cambridge, after which she lived in Buenos Aires and London.  She is studying for a PhD in medieval history.

That awareness of Britain’s long history feeds into a novel that has a very modern preoccupation.

This was where the men met if they wanted work.  There was little to had around here.  The jobs had gone twenty years ago or more.  There was just a couple of warehouses where you could get work shifting boxes into vans.  At Christmas-time there were more boxes and more vans but still not enough.  There were jobs here and there for women: hairdressing jobs, nannying jobs, shop-assistant jobs, cleaning jobs, teaching-assistant jobs if you had an education.  But if you were a man and you wanted odd jobs or seasonal farm work this was where you met.  (p. 151)

All these men are on welfare, but they need these odd jobs because as we all know, the dole is enough to scrape by on, but not enough to cover contingencies, disasters, replacement clothes and household items or the occasional luxury such as a packet of cigarettes or a drink at the pub.  These are the people left behind by globalisation.  The people represented here of necessity live a frugal life and because school has nothing to offer their children, the poverty is intergenerational, and it isolates the young people.

Yes Mozley shows us that in some ways, this life can be rich and satisfying, and that love within families is the keystone…

As the quotation from Ted Hughes tells us at the very beginning of the novel, Elmet is the ancient name of

… the last independent Celtic kingdom in England and originally stretched out over the vale of York… But even into the seventeenth century this narrow cleft and its side-gunnels, under the glaciated moors, were still a ‘badlands’, a sanctuary for refugees from the law.

Daniel the teenage narrator, his older sister Cathy, and his father live in the house that Daddy has built himself in a copse, one that was coppiced long before they appropriated the land.  I didn’t understand the significance of this until the verb was used again and I took the trouble to look it up. This video shows what it means to coppice a wood and why it matters:

The copse is a metaphor for the cycle of regeneration and home.  There is a beautifully tender scene where Daddy – a giant of man who lives by his fists – insists on moving the woodpile log by log in case there are animals who have made their home under it, and …

Sure enough, Daddy picked up a big old log and a little hedgehog blinked in amazement against the daylight before rolling itself up into a tight ball and presenting its bristles.  Daddy picked up the creature carefully in his massive leathery hands and carried it to safety. (p.168)

Surrounded by nature and living mostly on what the land produces, this family is contented enough.  That is, until the man on whose land their house is built comes by.  This novel wears its politics upfront: all the landowners – and Price is the richest and the meanest of them all – already have more than they could ever need and yet they squeeze the workers mercilessly.  Cause trouble and not only will you never work again, but you – and all your family and connections – will be evicted from the home you have on his land.

The sense of menace grows after Price’s visit.  His sons come by.  They are handsome and smart, and keenly aware that their mere presence is a threat and to Cathy in particular.  Daddy is one of many who’d like to take that man down a peg or two and he sends his children to do a day’s work, to find out what they can.  Against the odds, perhaps because there was some hope in her words, Cathy convinces some of the men to make contact with their father so that a small rebellion can be sparked.

The lawlessness that lies at the heart of this novel is a metaphor for the way the social contract has broken down since privatisation.

A woman in a fleece and jersey tracksuit came forward.  Her long, dirty-blonde hair was held in a low ponytail at the nape of her neck.  She gripped a lit cigarette between the ring and middle fingers of her left hand and Ewart about the man who owned her bungalow.  ‘At least when I paid rent to council, I felt I could get things fixed.  It were a slow process, always, but someone would come eventually and see to cooker, or whatever. I knew who to go to.  I knew there were some kind of, what’s word, process, no matter how tricky.  I gave my money to council and I kept place nicely and in return I got a decent place to live.  Now it’s a private landlord and he doendt give two stuffs.  I don’t have a fridge any more.  The wires went last year and it handt been cold since.  It’s just another cupboard. That’s how I use it, like a cupboard.’ Some others laughed.  The woman encouraged it, laughing too with a warm guttural giggle.  ‘call me naïve, but it were only really then I realised it were just land.  It were as you were saying to me before, Ewart.  The landlord wandt there to provide a service, as he saw it, or to offer owt in return for the money I paid him.  I were paying him money for land. For right to live on land.’ (p.169-170)

It’s a very powerful book.

I thought it was significant that the quotation on the front cover comes not from fellow authors or the usual suspects from the world of book reviewing, but from The Economist:

A quiet explosion of a book.  Exquisite and unforgettable.

Author: Fiona Mozley
Title: Elmet
Publisher: JM Originals, an imprint of John Murray (Hachette), 2017
ISBN: 9781473660540
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available from Fishpond: Elmet: Shortlist for the Man Booker Prize 2017


Responses

  1. Thank you for this wonderful review of Elmet. And for quoting the moment with the hedgehog. Now, do give Lincoln another chance. I think you will be rewarded. I know it’s probably odd and awkward to have to say about a novel – just keep reading through the barrier and you will discover great singing – but sometimes that process is – well, part of the process.

    • Nooo, I value your advice, Carmel, but Lincoln has had its chance and there are too many other lovely things to read instead!

      • I take your point. Too many other great things to read – and you sure DO READ. (I don’t know how you keep up. Amazing. )

        • It’s very nice to be able to indulge myself as I do, I know how lucky I am…

  2. It sounds like the winner is another that has lovers and haters. About a month ago an ex-bookgroup member – moved to the south coast – said we must read the George Saunders book. It’s tricky but wonderful she said. I’m intrigued and hope that our reading group might schedule it next year, but if we don’t I probably won’t get to it!

    This book sounds great – and thanks for the YouTube. Fascinating to hear about a different old land management practice.

    • It’s got lots of four and five star reviews at Goodreads, so you should be ok with Lincoln. But this review by James Ley is interesting, the SRB describes it as ‘lukewarm’ so I am not quite alone.
      I wonder if anyone does that kind of coppicing in Australia?

      • I got the sense for that video that it’s only suitable to certain types of trees – and maybe Australian natives are not among them?

        • Yes, it seemed to have something to do with the way they regenerate,
          Though I do know someone who had acreage down Barwon Heads and had a small paddock with young gum trees in it, and as new saplings grew taller they would cut down one every now and again for firewood so that the trees were never too tall to be unmanageable and were always replacing themselves.

  3. Hi Lisa, this is good to know that there is a good read in the Booker Shortlist. I am waiting on Elmet from the library. Sorry Sue, I didn’t like the George Saunders Book.

  4. […] Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals) (Update 18/10/17 see my review) […]

  5. […] Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals), debut novel, but I’m open to persuasion (Update 18/10/17 see my review) […]

  6. I love Lincoln at the Bardo – it’s beautifully written and a bit strange, but it’s NOT anything occult.

    Thanks for the review of Elmet – That’s one I haven’t read and now I’m really looking forward to it. I read Exit West and enjoyed it a lot. Started 4 3 2 1 and was enjoying it, but got interrupted – and haven’t got back. Autumn by Smith is superb. I may be rereading several of these.

    • *chuckle* If there were anything occult in it, I bet the Banning Books crowd would be at it already. Do they actually have much influence?

  7. Hi Lisa, obviously I am no judge – Lincoln at the Bardo won the prize I will give it another go!

    • Yes, me too, I’m no judge either (except of what I like, that is) so this is another case of me being out of step…

  8. I think the social contract broke down, in rural England anyway, with the Enclosure Acts. But you know I agree about Neo Liberalism. Think the last conscious social contract was under Bob Hawke. I like Keating but he was the first to open the door to all the class warfare that has followed.

    Have Solar Bones on the bedside table, but think I need the time to read it in one sitting.

    • I admire Keating for being a leader who led the way on things like Mabo but I was astonished when he gave Kennett the money to fund the retrenchment of thousands of teachers… there was a whole cohort of kids who never recovered from being taught in huge Prep classes and not getting the attention they needed.

  9. Interesting review, though I’m not involved at the moment. Due to big anti-colonialist wave, I am re-reading Samuel Eliot Morison as the best factual source on Christopher Columbus & other explorers. Concerned about what followed: conquistadores with their priests and exploiters in tow (Spanish, but also Portuguese & French & English) in the New World. Not covering Africa or Australia at present.

    • Well, we can’t all keep up with the prize books and often we don’t want to because we have other interests:)

  10. It sounds as if the Booker judges – or at least some of them – knew what they were about when they called this one in. Bardo doesn’t appeal but this one will be going on the list.

    • I think anyone who loves the English countryside will revel in the descriptions of nature:)

  11. Really looking forward to reading this, I will probably read it next.

    • I’m looking forward to your review, it’s surprising, maybe I’ve missed them but I haven’t seen reviews from my litblog circle, and I’d love to know what others think. I mean, there are heaps of things I haven’t raised in my review…


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