Algonquin Books. 312 Pages. ISBN 978-1-61620-842-4
By Chris May
Fiona Mozley’s debut novel is a story of separateness. Of otherness and of family. The story’s narrator Daniel, his sister Cathy, and their father John Smythe live in the wooded “copse” outside town in the Yorkshire countryside as John builds their home stick by stick around them. He teaches them to hunt, trap, and skin, to build lives for themselves on the margins of society. The children run through the woods free, wild. When the serenity of their world is threatened by the landowner, Mister Price, John is forced to reckon with his violent tendencies, capabilities, and past in order to secure the rights to his family’s home. It is at once a story of survival and a story of a familial bond that is threatened by property rights, land disputes, and class struggle. It is a story filled with love and ultimately with brutality. Mozley’s characters are drawn up beautifully from the page and the setting is vivid: crisp in the winter and sweltering in the summer. The dialogue is realistic and alive. And for a debut novel, the story itself is captivating.
The scope of the story is grand and while beautifully written in lyrical prose, Fiona Mozley stacks the events and the characters within the story like the turning over of playing cards. Characters are spotlit for a moment and then cast to the side only to dwindle and ultimately disappear, leaving the reader wondering what purpose they served other than to segue into the next plot point. It occurs again and again throughout and when all the pieces come together at the end, there is indeed a sense of completion but no sense of how the story got there. It lacks inevitability through loose ends and plot holes and leaves one thinking that somehow this entire fiasco could have been easily avoided. Despite this disorganization, Mozley provides no shortage of stunning prose in her descriptions of place:
“Spring came in earnest with clouds of pollen and dancing swifts. Little birds, back here to nest after a flight of a million miles, were buffeted by the wind, which blew hot then cold and clipped unripened catkins off the ash. The swifts were too light to charge at the gusts like gulls or crows, and through them I saw wind as sea. Thick, pillowy waves that rolled at earthen, wooded shores and threw tiny creatures at jutting rocks. The swifts surfed and dived and cut through the invisible mass, which to them must have roared and wailed as loudy as any ocean on earth, only to catch the air again on the updraft and rise to the crest. They were experts. They knew how it was done. And they brought the true spring. Not the spring that sent timid green shoots through the compacted frostbitten soil but the Spring that came with a rush of colour, a blanket of light, unfurling insects and absent, missed, prodigal birds on this prevailing sou’westerly.”
Along with her beautiful descriptions of scene and setting and backdrop, her use of dialogue is spare and believable. There is never a question who is speaking and so there is not always a need to identify them, as with this bit between the narrator Daniel and the infamous Mr Price:
“What’s your surname, lad?”
“Daniel and Catherine Oliver.”
“Yeah. What of it?”
“What’s your Daddy’s surname?”
“Aye. You know that.”
Mr Price nodded. “I do know that. I just wanted to ask.”
Elmet is a unique and gorgeously written piece of fiction despite its loft. Mozley takes on a great task in Elmet, exploring themes of ownership and loss, isolation and family, sexuality and consent, workers’ rights, death, fear, belonging. Still, it is a struggle for the reader to grasp what is at the core of this novel. Daniel, through whose eyes the reader encounters it all, attains little change or growth. It is Cathy who drives the story. She gleams like fire reflected in Daniel’s eyes throughout the telling and leaves us wishing it was her who was telling the tale as she grows from young girl into something fierce, unknowable, and dangerous. But we are left only to speculate and wonder at the depths of her, as the existence of her soul wanders far beyond the page. Much like Jim Harrison’s Tristan in Legends of the Fall, Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, or Mary Anne Bell in Tim O’Brien’s short story “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” in The Things They Carried, Cathy is a wildly captivating character. This book is worthwhile if only for the reader to spend some time watching her take her true form.