Rating 3 stars
I don’t remember buying Elmet. I don’t remember anyone buying it for me, either (my apologies if it was you). And yet it’s a book that I found that I owned while digging through my piles of books to be read, back at the start of this period of viral pandemic and social distancing that isn’t even four weeks ago yet.
My brain, whenever I glanced at the cover, wanted the book to be Elmer. When I glanced at the title, it wanted me to read Elnett. My brain didn’t want me to acknowledge a story about a family on the edge of society living on a scrap of woodland, a fraction of an ancient forest that used to stretch the length of the country. It wanted the sweet joy of a story about a patchwork elephant. It wanted the frivolity of a can of expensive hairspray.
Elmet is neither sweet joy nor frivolity. It is ancient and dark, troubling and fetid. It felt like I should be listening to Shirley Collins sing about murder while I read.
At first, the structure of the book left me feeling that author Fiona Mozley was too conscious of what she was trying to create. There was something halting in the narrative, making it difficult to find the story’s rhythm. It took me five days to read the first 45 pages. Then something clicked, for Mozley as the writer as well as me as the reader. She found the rhythm of her narrative and I settled into it.
Told in flashback interspersed with the present day for narrator Daniel, we know that something bad has happened in the copse, something that has forced Daniel to run, to become separated from his sister, to spend his waking hours on the tramp, looking for Cathy.
In the recent past, Daniel and Cathy lived with Granny Morley in East Yorkshire on the coast. Then they moved inland to live with their dad in a place familiar to him but not to them. Their dad, referred to throughout as Daddy, is an intermittent but substantial presence in their lives. He earns a living by bare knuckle fighting and doing ‘jobs’ that also tend to involve fists.
While Granny Morley looked after them, Daniel and Cathy went to school, where they didn’t fit in. Cathy was bullied by a group of boys and when she eventually retaliated, the boys were believed over her because they were from respectable families and had prospects. This was a lesson in who wins, and the beginning of a different life for Daniel and his sister.
Daddy takes ownership of a plot of land in a copse in South Yorkshire and builds a house for the three of them to live in. The land has connections to Daniel and Cathy’s mother, but they don’t know that at first. They learn to be self-reliant in their copse, living from the land and food bartered by Daddy for the ‘jobs’ he does. Theirs is a life on the fringes.
We kept on with our silly childhood games long after we were much too old. Our copse provided the materials we needed and an undulant terrain in which to run and hide. In another world we might have grown up faster, but this was our strange, sylvan otherworld, so we did not. And that, after all, was why Daddy had moved us here. He wanted to keep us separate, in ourselves, apart from the world. He wished to give us a chance of living our own lives, he said.
Cathy and I did not mind taking orders from Daddy. Sometimes we were more like an army than a family and he was not the type of leader to make you do anything for nothing.
Daddy arranges for a form of education to be delivered to Daniel and Cathy by a friend of their mother’s. Their mother is rarely mentioned. The children do not ask about her. Daddy doesn’t volunteer information. Daniel remembers her living with them at Granny Morley’s, intermittently like Daddy but to a different pattern, until one day she didn’t come back.
Our mother lived with us back at the house with Granny Morley. At times. Now and then. She came and went. Like Daddy. Sometimes she would bring herself to our door, sometimes she would be brought. Sometimes we saw her before she went upstairs to her room. Sometimes we did not.
The friend who provides the sort of education, Vivien, lives close to the copse. It’s possible that something more than friendship exists between her and Daddy. The lessons provide Daddy with the freedom he needs to go about his mysterious business. They provide Daniel with a view of a possible alternative life to the one Daddy has created for him. He becomes fascinated by Vivien.
Despite the story being set in recent years, there was something futuristic and dystopian about this small family’s existence, as though some terrible global disaster had left them as isolated survivalists. There was a discomfort to it that recalled the James Watkins film Eden Lake, a film that I hated for its grim portrayal of incivility between working class and middle class people. At least with Elmet, the working class protagonists aren’t demonised by Mozley. They are simply portrayed as different.
There are hints that a local disaster, in the form of the economic collapse of the mining towns and villages of South Yorkshire, has created a dystopian present for the people who no longer have work. Their situation is made worse by those who have managed to get on board with capitalism and live comfortable, exploitative lives in the midst of the poverty. Mr Price is one such man, a farmer and landlord who owns most of the land as well as the ex-council housing stock that he rents back to those who bought under Right To Buy but couldn’t afford to remain homeowners. Mr Coxswain is another, a casino owner who doesn’t see the need to pay workmen on time or at all, because they can’t afford to sue him.
Gradually, a new community begins to form, with Daddy at its heart. People who have personal beef with Price, Coxswain and other exploitative landlords and employers gather around Daddy’s wish to take Price, in particular, down. They begin a rent strike. It’s enough for Price to attempt to strike a bargain with Daddy, through which Daniel learns something of his mother’s past.
And then the bad thing happens and the South Yorkshire that exists outside of its cities becomes a version of the Wild West with its own system of justice.
I wish I could say that I cared about what happened. The ending felt flat, though. There was no triumph over adversity. There was only selfishness and a disregard for human life. It’s a well written book but a soulless one that presents the world as an emotional wasteland.