Violence, nature, and bare-knuckle boxing – Billie Armstrong looks at Booker “wildcard” Elmet
Fiona Mozley’s debut novel Elmet seemed to arrive from nowhere on the Man Booker Prize Longlist this year – given that it received its nomination before it was even due to be published – and by the time it had made the shortlist was widely being referred to as the “wildcard” among a seasoned pool of nominees including Arundhati Roy and Ali Smith. An undoubtedly impressive debut from 29-year-old Mozley, I can’t help but wonder what it was about Elmet that gave it that Booker Prize edge? Particularly with the prize’s recent decision to become an international award – up until 2014 only Commonwealth writers (with a few exceptions) were eligible for nomination – Elmet seems to neatly resist current anxiety that the prize is at risk of becoming Americanized. Mozley’s writing is at its most deft when representing how the rich history of a decidedly British landscape can perform in, and bring dimension to an exciting contemporary text.
Elmet is set against the rich natural landscape of Yorkshire, upon the land which the novel is titled after and which was once the small independent kingdom which emerged at the end of the Roman period of Britain. A feeling of disenchantment from time in the narrative, as well as the embedded references to the Romano-British history of Elmet, and the sheer lyrical weight given to the descriptions of landscape create a sense of past, present and future amalgamated in the land itself. Perhaps the novel’s most notable achievement is the way in which this rich natural land – set up with language which is somewhere between that of a romantic fable and Wordsworthian lyricism – becomes a stage for a violent western narrative to unfold. Mozley invites you into the world of a scenic Yorkshire fable only to arrest you with violence unbounded.
Elmet opens with the literal, constructed ‘world’ of the young narrator Daniel. Daniel’s father – who despite his intimidating physical brute force is only ever referred to as “Daddy” – has built a secluded and self-sufficient home in the woods for him and his sister Cathy in an attempt to reject wider social interaction with authority and capitalist society. Their existence is one of hunting and home-schooling, which places Cathy and Daniel outside the pressures of everything from issues of gender constructs – “I did not even think of myself as a boy. Of course if you had asked me I would certainly have replied that that is what I was. I had never actively rejected that designation. I just never thought about it.” – to authorial restrictions of their experience of space. One of the shakier aspects of the novel is the narrator conceivably being a fifteen-year-old who is remarkably astute in writing about nature, and the world he has such a supposedly limited conception of, whilst being apparently unaware of his own gender, sexual dispositions and willingly ignorant to the world outside of his family life. Daddy, on the other hand, seems to inhibit more than one “world”: his history and his violent nature are rooted in the world of underground boxing, which he attempts to keep separate from this carefully constructed family life. Ultimately, he cannot keep these worlds apart. An unexpected visit to their idyllic home in the form of the rapacious landlord Mr. Price presents a typical western nemesis figure to Daddy and signals the collapsing of these two worlds into each other: the collision of the lyrical fable with a violent gothic-turned-western tale.
Elmet is as beautiful as it is gruesome, and at times the two become indecipherable. There is a kind of beautiful quality given to pain, and violence is romanticised through gothic depictions as well the Robin Hood-esque acts of altruistic violence that Daddy performs. The landscape is constantly anthropomorphised and subject to human violence and intrusion. Daddy’s body is both an instrument for brutality and a site of wonder, as he is often described in terms of the natural world. The result is an intoxicating mix of an energised landscape with potent brutality which, in a novel which sets up an idyllic family life to be intruded by seemingly inescapable forces of modern society and greed, is compelling. Mozley’s first novel makes for a dark and enticing winter read. Weaving folklore with contemporary thought, Elmet lends us a gorgeous mythical lens to explore the landscape of a modern Yorkshire that is still subject to human conflicts of territory and greed.