“Elmet was 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 of the law”
Remains of Elmet
Elmet was the ancient name for an area which, more or less, encompasses the West Riding of Yorkshire; roughly from York to just south of Doncaster. This is where I live now, and with chagrin, I realised that I had never heard of it, other than in place names of which, I suppose, I had thought nothing.
Elmet, is then associated with that which is far removed from recent history, and this, along with the above quotation from Ted Hughes, sets the scene for this dark, heart-rending, immersive and brilliant debut novel from Fiona Mozley.
We begin Elmet near the end, with our narrator, Daniel, who is alone and heading north, in the bleak hope that he has taken the right path. His situation is desperate.
He has never been alone before, but neither has he been much in company. Without a mother from an early age, he and his sister, Cathy, have lived with Daddy. Daddy builds a house near the woods with his bare hands, manipulating wood like a master craftsman would have done centuries ago, before such skills became at the behest of the wealthy or to make novelties and trinkets. Daddy is almost a figure of legend; not Robin Hood perhaps. Maybe Little John; built like a giant. He belongs to a world before modern laws and social norms; he broods with a simmering violence, he disappears for days on end. They have enough money to survive. He moves on the very outskirts of society, he bareknuckle fights, and resolves local disputes in lieu of the law. Daddy is feared and revered, and feared some more, yet he is unfailing gentle with his children.
Daniel and Cathy are removed from mainstream school, after an incident involving Cathy. In an effort to provide some level of education, or perhaps just to keep them safe while he spends time away, Daddy takes them to Vivien, who is a reclusive friend of their mother. She has a warm and comforting home, but she is not motherly; rather awkward. We don’t really get to the bottom of this relationship; it’s mysterious between her and Daddy. Cathy can’t stay to read or learn, she’s not interested, and leaves to go outside every day. She is like Daddy, she belongs to, and is a force of, nature. Cathy is the tragic heroine of this novel; she’s extremely complex and has, if anything, a greater animalistic anger than Daddy.
Daniel is said to be like his mother, and indeed he is gender fluid, unconcerned about any physical difference between men and women. At home he is the care giver and the home maker, and he is accepted and appreciated for his way of being, without comment or prejudice. He loves to be at Vivien’s. It is here that he can see a future for himself, different from his past.
But they don’t own the land where their house is built, and there is a man who does, who cares very much about ownership and fealty. Mr. Price is the local landowner; rich and influential, and always gets his own way. He inspires fear in a different way to Daddy. While one lives outside of the societal norms, the other, it can be imagined, hides in plain sight. His children are in a prestigious private school and no doubt he can function in far higher society than Daddy. Morally, we are uncertain of Daddy, but we are in far less doubt with Price.
Who can control the most fear? The concluding chapters of Elmet are brutal and tragic. There is a great deal of inequality in the book, the social, the economic, the balance of power, the ability to determine what will happen, when, and how. Unbridled fury though, is the great equaliser, where all bets are off and the outcome becomes unpredictable. There is one part which I found to be like Lord of the Flies in reverse; where the children, in one moment of clarity, are horrified by the actions of adults, in a place where the law holds no sway.
There is a restless quality to this novel; comfortable moments are short-lived. The language is poetic and lyrical; some sentences are so profoundly beautiful, or laced with such visceral brutality, that I had to read them again, just to appreciate the skill with which they have been written. Much of the speech is in the vernacular. We talk funny in Yorkshire, finding the determiner ‘the’ unnecessary in most situations. ‘Doesn’t’, ‘wouldn’t’ and ‘couldn’t’ don’t require all their syllables when vocalised, and the word ‘was’, is invariably ‘were’ regardless of whether the subject is singular or plural.
And yet, the story on another level, is told so level headedly. Daniel has none of the anger in him that the other characters have. He is faced by choices, paths he could take, and although he thinks he is cowardly sometimes, his bravery is part of what makes this book so very powerful and so sad. The final, bleak observation, as a product of all he has experienced, nearly brought me to tears. One of my favourite reads this year.
Winner of the 2018 Polari First Book Prize and Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017.