Thursday, November 29, 2018

Young Writer Award: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Next Thursday, a week today, the winner of the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award will be announced. I've been too busy in the last ten days or so to blog or even do much reading - mainly I've been working on an essay for a textbook of essays by second-generation Irish writers, which has needed huge contemplation and the deep scouring of my memory and so has taken up most of my mental capacity. However, having got that and other stuff out of the way, I'm now intending to finish reading the shortlist before that date. (Wish me luck: I still have three of them to read, including Imogen Hermes Gowar's 500-page whopper The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock!)

I have read Fiona Mozley's Elmet, however. There are books you can think good but which basically you can take or leave, and there are books that take you, grab you by the scruff of the neck and refuse to let go until the final page, leaving you drained yet filled, adrenalin-drained but filled with huge emotion, and with wonder, and a different view of the world. Fiona's book is one of the latter. The story of Daniel, who lives with his father and sister in a house they have built in a Yorkshire wood, the remains of the Celtic Kingdom of Elmet, it deals with an aspect of society that you don't see much in fiction - a world of drifters existing on the edges of society, and the violence that erupts when the two come into conflict over land and property. When such people do appear in fiction, they are usually held in the stranglehold of an author's middle-class voice (which always makes me feel weary!), but that is by no means the case here. I don't know how Fiona has done it - she seems such a nice young woman! - but she has tapped right into the ethos and psychology of that world with an earthy yet lyrical register that seems entirely authentic. I was coming towards the end of this book one afternoon when I needed to go shopping for food for visitors arriving that evening, but I just couldn't move. Darkness came down outside, but I couldn't even make myself get up to switch on the overhead light, and as I sat beside the fire coming to the violent end of the story, my heart was pounding with excitement and dread and my eyes were filled with tears of both joy and despair. I don't think the book's entirely perfect - I would say that sometimes the sensibility and articulacy are too sophisticated for its narrator Daniel - but I forgive it that utterly for its insight, its language, its bravery, and the experience it gave me, and quite frankly, for a debut it's amazing.

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