Elmet by Fiona Mozley – Book review

In September, my book club chose Fiona Mozley’s debut novel Elmet for our monthly read. We met in our usual café on a freezing autumn evening and had a lively discussion, albeit huddled around hot drinks. This review contains some of my favourite thoughts from that evening, without giving anything too important away…

While I was reading Elmet, it struck me that this book is difficult to explain. When people asked ‘What’s it about?’ I struggled to find a few words that would do it justice, or capture the strange and poetic essence of the novel. I eventually settled for ‘family, our relationship with nature, isolation and revenge.’

The story is told by Daniel, the youngest of two children, whose narrative is all at once startlingly observant and frustratingly abstract. In a forest in Yorkshire, Danny, his elder sister Cathy, and their father carve out a home with nostalgic and appealing simplicity. They rely almost exclusively on the provisions of nature, and the skills which are passed onto them by their ‘Daddy’. Their house, lovingly built, forms the nucleus of the novel. It plays host to celebrations, conspiracies and catastrophes, all the while serving as a reminder of their isolated existence.

‘Daddy’, otherwise known as John, remains an enigma throughout Elmet. Mozley gives him very little dialogue, but his body communicates volumes. His ‘gargantuan’ physicality grants him a covert reputation for bare-knuckle boxing, which makes his paternal tenderness even more arresting. But the protection he provides for his children is problematic, as he shelters them in a home built on un-owned land. It is his disregard for contemporary necessities, like law and formal education, which leaves their modest utopia vulnerable to the merciless predation of the Price family.

Mr Price poses a clear juxtaposition to John, for although he manages a network of illicit transactions, they are cloaked in the success of his legitimate business. Where John is straightforward, and happy to live hand to mouth, Price is greedy, and sits atop his capitalist empire, ruthlessly exploiting those who are physically and financially disadvantaged.

After a lengthy period of foreboding, these two men collide in a spectacular combination of violence, misunderstanding and pride. The culmination of the novel is explosive and open-ended; Danny is left to ponder the secrets of his sister, and catapulted into an unfamiliar life outside of Elmet. It’s striking that the eponymous setting was one of the last remaining kingdoms to be conquered by the Anglo-Saxons in medieval England. Perhaps this translates into the text, for the handmade house, nestled in its clearing, speaks of a time long forgotten. In this time, scores are settled without the intervention of law or government, and a family can exist almost entirely untouched by the conventions of society.

While everyone took a different stance on the obscure morality in Elmet, something we all agreed on was that reading this book felt immersive. With the damp, fresh smells of the forest, the tactile handcrafted furnishings in their home and the lilting dialect of the locals, it indulges the senses. Overall, a moreish and gloriously unpredictable read that I couldn’t recommend highly enough.