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First, some context, particularly for American readers of Fiona Mozley’s debut novel, ELMET. The book’s somewhat unusual title is taken from the ancient kingdom called Elmet by the Celts, now in west Yorkshire in the north of England. Elmet has been previously commemorated in literature, in Ted Hughes’ poetry collection, REMAINS OF ELMET, which used the primeval landscape as a backdrop for mythic scenes of nature bearing witness to men’s acts of violence.

Mozley picks up on many of these same themes in her own novel, ELMET, and it’s no coincidence that she includes a quote from Hughes’ book as the epigraph to her own. Nature --- particularly the ancient forests that surround her characters --- is a palpable force in ELMET, dwarfed only by the powerful, warped human forces of justice, revenge and violence that lurk in its shadows.

"[A]nyone who reads [ELMET] will discover why this achingly beautiful, brutally emotional novel deserves to be recognized and rewarded --- and enjoyed by readers on both sides of the Atlantic."

At the center of the novel is a small family: Daniel; his older sister, Cathy; and their father, John. The three of them have made their home deep in the forests of Elmet, ever since leaving their former home at their grandmother’s house along the coast. Their mother --- a nebulous, tragic figure whose troubled history is only ever partially revealed --- is no longer in the picture, and John determines to keep Daniel and Cathy safe the only way he knows how: by teaching them how to become as self-sufficient as he fashions himself to be.

John is a giant of a man, a one-time professional fighter who in some ways craves violence. He once earned a living by serving as an enforcer for Mr. Price, the quasi-feudal landlord who owns much of the town and nearly all of the farms in the vicinity. But now John has retreated, determined to keep his family safe and more than a little isolated, if that’s what it takes to protect them from the world that betrayed Daniel and Cathy’s mother: “Everything he did now was to toughen us up against something unseen. He wanted to strengthen us against the dark things of the world. The more we knew of it, the better we would be prepared. And yet there was nothing of the world in our lives, only stories of it.” Soon enough, though, those “dark things of the world” will come to find the small family, even amid the Edenic landscape they’ve created for themselves.

ELMET is set in a contemporary, or near-contemporary, time frame, and yet it feels much older, perhaps as ancient and primitive as the woods that Mozley describes with such reverence and awe. Her characters speak in a distinctive dialect, dropping initial articles in their dialogue; the imagery of Daniel and Cathy’s house virtually becoming part of the landscape also seems ancient, as does the tenuous social and economic structure of their rural community. Parts of the narrative involve a damaged, questing Daniel looking back on recent events, haunted by what’s happened. Once readers also witness the grotesque violence that simmers just beneath the surface of this isolated society, they’ll understand why he seems so anguished.

Given that Mozley is a virtual unknown, it was somewhat surprising that ELMET was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. However, anyone who reads it will discover why this achingly beautiful, brutally emotional novel deserves to be recognized and rewarded --- and enjoyed by readers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 8, 2017

by Fiona Mozley

  • Publication Date: December 5, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1616208422
  • ISBN-13: 9781616208424