Monday, October 26, 2020

Reading group: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

I recommended this Booker-shortlisted book as I had loved it when I wrote about the books on another shortlist it made: the 2018 Young Writer of the Year Award.  It's the first-person narration of Daniel, who tells the story of how, at the age of fourteen, he lived with his father and elder sister in a house his father built in a Yorkshire wood, the remains of the wooded Celtic kingdom of Elmet, which once stretched right across Yorkshire. Neither children attend school.  A sensitive boy, Daniel keeps house and makes a garden, growing vegetables and cooking, while his sister Cathy prefers to learn the tough, foraging ways of their father John. John is something of a giant of a man, renowned among the drifters and travellers on the edge of society for winning wagered bare-fist fights, somewhat lawless but fiercely moral when it comes to fighting for the rights of the downtrodden, in particular against cruel landlords and landowners. As someone in the group said - I think Ann - he's a latter-day Robin Hood who is indeed name-checked at the start of the book when Daniel describes the wood in which the three settle:

The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up the undergrowth and back into our lives... Robyn Hode and his pack of scrawny vagrants...

It is not long before the three begin to feel threat from the owner of the land on which they are living, and we are soon caught up in the violence that erupts when those on the edge of society come into conflict with it over land and property.

The book begins with one of several italicised sections occurring through the book, in which, in the aftermath of the shockingly violent denouement, Daniel is drifting throughout the country looking for his lost sister. The bulk of the story, seen through this lens, has too an elegiac and mythical, almost fairytale quality, and the prose in which it is told is both tough and lyrical. As I said in my earlier blog I found the book engrossing - exciting and moving, and drenched in an atmosphere that is entirely affecting. I said then that I found one fault with it, which was that perhaps the lyrical language and some of the thought processes were too sophisticated to have been expressed by the fourteen-year-old Daniel who has not long escaped the violent ending of the life in the wood. However, on my second reading it occurred to me that we are not necessarily meant to take this period of Daniel's life as the narrative time frame - the present tense in which the italicised sections are told could be read as historic.

Most others in the group wholeheartledyly shared my enthusiasm. Mark, who couldn't attend, phoned beforehand to say how wonderful he thought the book was, and how amazed he was that a debut from such a young author (Mozley was 29 when the book was published) could be so beautifully written and so mature in its insights. Others entirely agreed, and there was much admiration for the convincing nature of the depiction of the tough and violent underside of society, of the simmering violence of those seemingly 'civilized' and in charge, and indeed, by implication, the fundamental violence of capitalism. We also found, in the way the characters of Daniel and Cathy upend conventional expectations, an insightful examination of gender. 

There were just two waverers. John said he found the book 'long-winded' - which basically took our breath away; we simply couldn't see how he could have thought that of a book so compelling, the pages of which you just kept turning. He said it took far too long for something to happen, ie for the landowner Price to start threatening the little family. We totally disagreed and thought he must simply have been having an offday and unable to attend to the book properly: we felt that both the existential threat to the family and the threat of violence from Price are there from very early on. Jenny expressed some dissatisfaction: she found that there were too many things that were unlikely or unexplained. For one thing, people don't just build houses in the wood like that in this day and age, and what about the children not attending school, that would surely have been followed up. We all strongly disagreed. For one thing, the mythic, fairtale quality of the book allows suspension of disbelief, but in any case, children do sometimes scandalously fall through the net of contemporary social structures. As for the house in the woods, well, apart from the fact that some of us knew of makeshift woodland houses of homeless people to which the authorities are turning a convenient blind eye, there is a substantial plot twist involving the children's mother which  explains (the character) John's sense of his right to the piece of land on which he builds (and also Price's impulse for  revenge). Jenny also said she didn't think a girl could in any way manage the acts of violence and strength carried out by Cathy at the end, but we all disagreed - as (our) John said, at the end it would be a matter of the training she'd had in the woods, but also fundamentally it would be the element of surprise - after all, a main thing that had prompted the family's retreat from society was that Cathy, who has inherited her father's mindset and strength, had beaten up the boys who bullied Daniel in school, but was punished because no one could believe that a girl could do such a thing. 

I don't think we convinced Jenny, as when Mark asked at the next meeting what we'd all thought of the book, she reiterated her criticisms, but she did also say both times that she'd enjoyed it and found it engrossing, and we praised it all over again. 

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

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