Friday, 5 February 2021

Ruby Reviews Elmet by Fiona Mozley

The pandemic has led to excessive home consumption of many things. In our house it’s books (well, maybe one or two other things as well, but we did manage a dry January). I’ve been gorging on crime fiction series and particularly Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch books, read in order. Last week I had to stop myself and consume something else. On the top bookshelf I found an abandoned cast-off from a friend who every couple of years buys a bunch of books with good intentions, never reads them and gives them away. It was Elmet by Fiona Mozley.

Mrs R had started and given up with Elmet. That can be both a good and a bad sign. Bad if she’s given up because a book is poorly written, good if she’s stopped reading because it’s weird. I like weird.

Elmet is weird. I didn’t like the book title – it reminded me of a popular brand of ladies’ hairspray. (I don’t use hairspray, honest.) I didn’t like the cover – it looked too literary or something. Having now read Elmet, I like the title and the cover, because they remind me of the book’s world. Don’t get me wrong, Elmet isn’t a fantasy world. It’s more Wasp Factory than fantasy, except it has no wasps and no (Wasp Factory spoiler) mutilation of private parts. There is some mutilation though. Patrick McGrath’s Spider also springs to mind.

The title is almost coincidental as the ancient kingdom of Elmet is barely referenced. It does indicate that the family at the centre of the story lives in their own world, on the fringe of regular society and by their own rules. The seven foot tall Daddy figure is a prize fighter moving through an unorthodox life of financial reward for controlled violence, a strong personal code and immense love for his two children. Think Tyson Fury but without modern appliances. This is an underworld of ne’er do wells, the trials and tribulations of the underprivileged, and the abuse of power by the privileged who reign over their vassals as modern day kings. The main villain is named Mr Price (which has humorous connotations here in Ireland as it’s the name of a discount retail chain, but that can’t be helped).

Daddy’s teenage son Daniel is the narrative voice and there are occasional flashes forward as the now itinerant Daniel wanders the land, looking for his absent sister Cathy. There has clearly been some kind of happening leading to this and the main story describes that. The author’s touch is light enough that it doesn’t disturb the reading.

I once knew (online) a British Gypsy (and he would have described himself as such) who had won his west country cottage and land in a fist fight in a pub car park. He lived in a world of cash and his own society’s rules, and died tragically young. The world of Elmet does exist, albeit the setting for the book is north east England. Apart from the narrative telling us so, the dialogue is skilfully localised, again without disturbing the reading. I would say, though, there are some extensive stretches of dialogue where the speaker’s words start to read and sound like narrative. That would be my only criticism.

Fiona Mozley paints the world of Daddy, Daniel and Cathy in vivid colours. I lived for two days in their house in the woods, emerging occasionally into the day and night reality of the masked Covid world, feeling like an outsider and desperate to get back into Elmet. Mozley manages to bring everything alive without making me wish I knew more about types of plants and trees, which is usually the problem when an author goes all green on you. The characters are also fully alive and distinct. Daddy, Daniel and Cathy are three very different peas from the same pod. They are each interesting individuals in different ways. The life they choose to live is very different to most people but they have to interact with society and its issues of poverty, substance abuse, crime and mental health. Elmet is one of those books I regretted finishing. A strange kind of escapism that, for a couple of days at least, made me vow to resume my life as a fighter (I was never very good), to arm my household against villains (no arms available, no villains in sight) and to fully enjoy everything the natural world has to offer (within a 5km radius of my home for exercise purposes only). Highly recommended.