This review is the first amongst the Man Booker Prize nominees’ reviews that I will be doing in these coming few weeks, in collaboration with Writenlive from Read Write Live. Read her intrepid review here.
Fresh and distinctive writing from an exciting new voice in fiction – Sally Rooney meets Sarah Perry, Elmet is an unforgettable novel about family, as well as a beautiful meditation on landscape.
Daniel is heading north. He is looking for someone. The simplicity of his early life with Daddy and Cathy has turned sour and fearful. They lived apart in the house that Daddy built for them with his bare hands. They foraged and hunted. When they were younger, Daniel and Cathy had gone to school. But they were not like the other children then, and they were even less like them now. Sometimes Daddy disappeared, and would return with a rage in his eyes. But when he was at home he was at peace. He told them that the little copse in Elmet was theirs alone. But that wasn’t true. Local men, greedy and watchful, began to circle like vultures. All the while, the terrible violence in Daddy grew.
Atmospheric and unsettling, Elmet is a lyrical commentary on contemporary society and one family’s precarious place in it, as well as an exploration of how deep the bond between father and child can go.
Elmet, one of the six books shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize, is the début work by English author Fiona Mozley. The thing that strikes the most, though, as one finishes the first section, is that it doesn’t feel like a first book. It is raw, yes. It also has its flaws. But it seems, and feels, more like the work of an experienced pro than a fresher.
Elmet tells the story of a family of three – Daniel (Danny), Catherine (Cathy) and their father John (Daddy) – in chapters that traverse two separate timelines. Danny narrates almost every chapter. He is also, owing to this vantage point, our window to the book’s world. This world, despite being of contemporary existence, is, in one word, different. Such is the universalism of the story that the novel could as easily have been set in 16th Century-England, without diminishing its impact.
The very first chapter, which starts with a prologue-ish section, is so rich in detail and features such heavy words that I had to read it twice to completely understand what the author was describing. Thereafter, however, things settled down to a different plane that wasn’t as daunting, vocabulary-wise, and remained compelling all the same.
I see the chimney stack and cooling towers of a power station on the horizon, gorging on the earth and spewing measures of caustic exhaust. I see a veil of ashen smog that hangs between land and sky and the leaden vapour pooling into mock clouds. I see a chain of pylons stretching from far-ground to foreground like a vast, disarticulated arthropod, and tethered shadows, more gargantuan still, lying upon the hills like the insignia of pagan forbears. I see bovine silhouettes shift steadily across meadows, hulking their uneasy weight from trough to furrow, and elsewhere, I see the dusk settle on the fleeces of grazing ewes like sparks from flint to tinder. I watch the land glow and the sky burn. And I step through it with a judicious tread. I pass from Elmet bereft.
The central conflict of the story is the struggle of this family to keep their independence intact. It is this struggle that John, the father, spearheads. His family is at the lower end of the infamous English class system, fighting against the upper class villains who, when they arrive, are not unlike those from a hardcore action flick, albeit written compellingly all the same. This class struggle and the socialist principles of John and co. form the bedrocks of their belief. The villains are the (actual) capitalists who want to gobble up everything around themselves, by hook or by crook, for the profits they can accrue. So, apart from being us-against-the-world, this is also a story with a barely-concealed socialism vs capitalism fight.
If we divide the book into two sections, action (which would include dialogues as well) and description, the best action part is the book’s climax. By then, we know things are going to get messy and that Danny and his family have an impossible task in front of them, but the sheer, visceral intensity that the author provides there is what prevents the book from falling into a familiar trap. In fact, it elevates the book and acts as the perfect balancing act for the dazzling prose that precedes it.
We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine.’ I took hold of my sister.
One major issue I had with the book was that there were too many pages where nary anything happened, only description and more description. For a short, 187 page-book, this doesn’t reflect warmly on it. While I do concede that these passages have an arresting beauty and help in the mood-setting part, it’d have been better had the author trimmed them, if only just.
Another shortcoming is the unsatisfactory end. Yes, it does dazzle, and yes, it is quite natural too in how it transpires, but I’d have loved to have more clarity on where we leave this journey.
As for the characters, Danny and his sister Cathy have the most vivid sketches. The mastery with which Ms. Mozley has depicted the inner workings of the mind of a 15 year-old boy is something to behold. Also noteworthy is the way in which she swaps the gender norms between the siblings. So Cathy is the strong, fearless and supple one while Danny is the soft and weak one, who tries to avoid every fight. And the beauty of the book is that this doesn’t seem illogical at any point. The father, John, battles the whole world to keep his kids safe. He doesn’t have much dialogue but his imposing frame and actions carve out a backstory of their own.
“There are dreams, Ewart, and there are memories. And there are memories of dreams.”
Ultimately, Elmet is a story that shows the power of the bonds of blood and the difficulties of class struggles, while regaling us with writing that sparkles with every turn of the page.
Verdict: Elmet isn’t without its share of troubles, but it is a certified great read.
Genre: Drama, Contemporary, Noir, Adult, Literary Fiction, Family, British Fiction.
Booker Prediction: Won’t win.
Trivia: Ms. Mozley wrote the book on her phone, during her daily commute from York to London.
Have you read Elmet? What is your take on the book? Which of the other nominees have you read? Drop your views in the comments section.
“Because great books deserve great discussions.”
Images courtesy : inews.co.uk
Thanks for reading.