We meet Daniel, the narrator of Fiona Mozley’s debut novel, on this journey in short chapters that appear between the chapters that tell his main story—the story of his life in a little house that his father, John, built in a place called Elmet. There, Daniel and his sister, Cathy, and their father made their own kind of life, with its own rules. The children, ages 14 (Daniel) and 15 (Cathy) took lessons from a woman who lived nearby, but mostly they lived apart from the world. Cathy was fierce and strong, and Daniel was quieter and more cautious.
The book’s plot is straightforward enough, and although it takes some turns that I didn’t necessarily expect, everything that happens is hinted at strongly from Daniel’s narration. And the story takes on a lot of ideas regarding class and community, masculinity and femininity, and the place of violence in human nature and society. John is a fighter, and it is suggested that this is in his nature. But is it? He has a gentleness with his children. And others use his violence to their own ends, something he’s come to chafe at.
And then there’s the role of community. Price and the other landowners seem to not just own the land but to own people’s lives. And the community appears to have given in, as a neighbor named Ewart notes:
I don’t know folk round here like I used to. I can’t tell how they feel anymore, or how they think. Sometimes I think spirit’s dead and gone, but sometimes I think it’s still there, just resting its eyes. A lot of those here are sons and daughters of men that worked with me up at pit. So many passed away before their time. They drank too much and smoked too much and ate too much of this meat. We all did. But I do see something here of that old word. People are as poor now as they ever were, and as tired. And bringing people together of an evening is easier than keeping them apart. And by that same token, bringing a community back together is easier than setting people and families at odds. It’s just that that’s where all effort’s been this last ten years and more.
Perhaps because he’s outside the system, John sees a way to fix things by bringing people together. But it’s tenuous, and we’re left wondering whether Ewart is right that it’s easier to keep people together than apart. One individual, rightly or wrongly motivated, can burn the whole thing down.
Elmet’s conclusion is big and dramatic, but the book as a whole is not. I appreciated how Mozley kept her big ideas under the surface. I’m not convinced by all of the ideas in the book, but I’m interested in mulling them over. I suspect some readers will find the slow build and crashing ending to be frustrating, and there were some narrative shifts that were a bit too sudden. But, on the whole, I liked this book a lot.
So with only one book to go, History of Wolves, which no one seems to like much, Elmet snags the sixth spot on my shortlist, bumping Exit West. That breaks my heart a little because Exit West is so good. But this seemed fresher to me. After last year, it’s a pleasure to have more than six books that feel worthy of the shortlist!