A novel’s being shortlisted for a major award, for instance, the Man Booker Prize, can sometimes become an exercise in speculation – a search for narrative patterns, or gossip on jury preferences, for instance. Fiona Mozley’s Elmet and Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves have a couple of things in common. There’s a young teen narrator in both cases, living in relative isolation, in rural, underpopulated areas.
Mattie in Fridlund’s novel lives with her parents in a former commune located in Minnesota, where summers are fleeting and winters bring in the big freeze. Daniel or Danny/Dan, as he is often called, the narrator of Elmet, lives in the region with the same name, roughly identified in the present day with West Riding (or sub-division) in Yorkshire, north England. Elmet was the site of an independent Celtic kingdom between the fifth and seventh centuries CE, before it gave in to its more powerful, neighbouring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In the kingdom of Elmet, the old Brittonic language (Celtic) was spoken in ancient times. This later split into various other languages within the same family – Welsh and Cumbrian, among others. In various ways, even in Mozley’s novel, it remains a distinct region with a certain distinct language.
Harsh and harsher
It’s a hard land, with a hard history, of revolts against authority and royal domination. As, for instance, took place in 1380 CE, when citizens of York county revolted against King Richard II for raising taxes. Mozley, who grew up in York and is also a researcher of Britain’s medieval past, doesn’t bring up this history. In her novel, however, the lives of Dan, his father John, and sister Cathy reflect such aspects of history in every measure. This is evident in the fierce independence of the lives they lead close to nature, every routine adapted to the harshness of the landscape. They are hunter and caretaker, in the same breath, of the animals they share the land with.
John, the father, is reputed and feared as a fighter, a man well-known across Elmet, and beyond in England and Ireland, for his strength, his invincibility with his fists. Yet John isn’t a bully. Nor is he randomly given to violence, though many such as the landlord Tom Price, who has been buying up much of the council (state) land would like John to work for them to evict the poorer, more desperate tenants from their property. John, tormented by his own past, tries hard to be a caring parent, a loving father. It is to Elmet that he brings his soon-to-be-motherless children, and it is here that he builds them a house.
Man Booker Shortlist
All six books reviewed
Battle for survival
It isn’t an idyllic existence, for the land in this part of Yorkshire is unyielding for the most part. In Remains of Elmet, published in 1979, the poet Ted Hughes, who was born here, wrote verses accompanying Fay Godwin’s photographs of this region. In this review of the poems, Hughes is quoted as describing the region as one where ‘nothing ever escapes into happiness’. The dialogue of the people too, Hughes wrote, was grittier and harsher, like the landscape. In the book’s preface, Hughes went on to describe how Elmet was once virtually uninhabitable, then became a place of refuge for the hardened criminal.
The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century followed, but the decline of the region’s industry in the last century left a soot-blackened land. A land that makes demands on all those who live on it and sucks them dry. Sometimes violence remains the only option, for one is driven to it.
In Mozley’s Elmet, Cathy, the narrator Dan’s sister, explains to him:
“…Daddy won’t always be around. And even if he is, it is my life and my body and I can’t stand the thought of going out into the world and being terrified by it all, all o’ the time. Because I am, Danny, I am. And I don’t want to be. I don’t want to feel afraid.”
“I didn’t want to end up in a ditch. I didn’t want that any more than you want to be a fighting man like Daddy or a labouring man, out sorting potatoes on a farm all day until your limbs get caught and broken and chopped in the dirty machinery, dirty iron and dirty steel. We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine.”
This land, peopled largely by the poorer tenants and farm workers, is eyed greedily by landlords and other moneyed men. Seemingly well-connected, and having bought council land earlier, they think nothing of raising rents and evicting old residents now in straitened circumstances. This is where Mr Price, one of the richest landlords in the region, seeks John’s help. The two of them also share a history, barely alluded to in this novel: they were rivals in love once.
Trust: the self and the other
Danny and Cathy’s mother, who features as a shadowy, sickly figure, taking up a bare few pages in Elmet, had once owned the land her family now lives on. Price demands a terrible act from John, which he is unable to countenance or acquiesce to. This sets off, almost in slow motion, the events that will lead to a demand for higher wages among the hired labour, with a call for rental boycott by the tenants. Initially, almost echoing similar events in the region’s history, the strike does see euphoric success. But the shadow of doom is never too far away.
Dan, Elmet’s fifteen-year-old narrator, is preternaturally observant. It is, as sketched by Mozley, the simplest, elemental details that catch his eye: The way a woman walks, the expression on Vivien’s face, as she agrees (on John’s insistence) to teach Cathy and him, even the mysterious ways of his own sister. But there is an elemental innocence about Dan as well: an essential unknowingness about evil, even an inability to suspect foul intent in anyone.
In the showdown that ensues, Dan appears to subliminally accept his own trust in the fact that everyone is, and must be, fundamentally true to their own motives, and will act accordingly. He understands that people, especially his sister and his father, will do things a certain way, and he follows them loyally, even though their reasons aren’t always clear to him. But he trusts that he will always be protected and sheltered, that his father and sister will ensure his safety despite the threat to their own selves. He trusts in his belief that no matter what, he will find Cathy again.
Elmet, Fiona Mozley, John Murray Originals.