Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Book Review: "Elmet" by Fiona Mozley

Fiona Mozley's Elmet is one of the most lyrical, atmospheric books I've read in some time. The descriptions of this area of rural Yorkshire, and the environment that surrounds the main characters, are tremendously poetic and vivid, yet Mozley doesn't use more words than necessary to get the mood or her story across. It's almost as if she strove for a simple, no-nonsense tone befitting her salt-of-the-earth characters.

In the book's epigraph from Ted Hughes, we learn that Elmet was "the last independent Celtic kingdom in England...stretched out over the vale of York," as well as "a sanctuary for refugees from the law." This is where 14-year-old Daniel lives with his 15-year-old sister Cathy and their father, in a house their father built himself. They are self-sufficient, living off the land around them.

Their father, John, is known for his ferociousness as a bareknuckle fighter. He is a gentle giant yet a man not above using his fists to get what he needs or wants, or to punish those who have done wrong in his eyes. This behavior is inherited not by Daniel, who is happier tending to the family's dogs and serving as cook rather than protector, but by Cathy, who strikes back at her classmates who bully her.

Their life is a simple, happy one, until Price, the greedy tyrant who owns most of the land in the area, begins to cause trouble. The more he wants to bleed his tenants dry, the more it angers them, especially John, who finds himself assuming a leadership position among his fellow tenants, uniting them against Price. They decide on a rent strike, and John defends the group when the bailiffs come to enforce laws on Price's behalf.

As with any struggle between the haves and have-nots, the tension simmers until it hits a breaking point. And that's where Elmet loses its way somewhat, veering a bit into melodrama and slightly less plausible events. While the book's conclusion isn't surprising, it still seemed a bit far-fetched to me, and that was disappointing. I also found a few of the characters, including Price, seemed a little two-dimensional, where there was potential to make them complex, flawed people.

Amazingly, Elmet is Mozley's debut novel, and it was a finalist for this year's Man Booker Prize. A few glitches notwithstanding, Mozley's storytelling is so assured, so compelling, that I have little doubt she's going to have an amazing career ahead of her. Is the book perfect? No, but it is tremendously memorable and beautifully written. It's one that has haunted me since I read it a week or two ago.

NetGalley and Algonquin Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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