Last year’s Man Booker Prize longlist was largely dominated by established authors apart from the surprise inclusion of PhD student Fiona Mozley with her debut novel ‘Elmet’ which made the shortlist but lost out to Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders for the overall prize. Set in Yorkshire, it tells the story of teenage siblings Daniel and Cathy and their father Daddy (also known as John) who relocate from their red-brick house in town to secluded woodland where they have built their own home by hand and living according to ethical principles. However, they soon come into conflict with the rich landowners, putting their way of life in danger.
Elmet is an ancient Celtic kingdom located in what is now West Yorkshire and is described in the epigraph taken from ‘Remains of Elmet’ by Ted Hughes as “a sanctuary for refugees from the law”. The influence of the rural setting’s ancient folklore is present in the sparse yet vivid description of the landscape and the local dialect (“there wandt owt I could do”) is rendered in much of the dialogue. However, the story is set in the present day and is more contemporary than I was expecting. Apart from the occasional reference to modern features such as Pendolino trains and Euromillions, there are few clues that the story is actually set in the present day. However, a very contemporary story emerges and Mozley skilfully weaves these different elements together to produce something truly unique in atmosphere and tone.
‘Elmet’ was considered the underdog of the Man Booker Prize shortlist and the story itself is a tale of powerless tenants taking on a rogue landlord, Mr Price. The social commentary and Mozley’s criticism of austerity becomes more overtly political as the plot progresses, with scenes depicting modern-day slavery, exploitation and references to food banks. Gender politics is also touched upon. The narrator, Daniel, is a sensitive child in contrast with his sister’s tomboyish feistiness and Daddy’s reputation as a violent bare-knuckle fighter who is feared by many in the community and regularly competes in illegal boxing matches. However, there is a stark contrast between Daddy’s physical prowess and his lack of power and influence when faced with legal disputes. It is clear that Daddy is prepared to fight to the death and Mozley carefully builds the ominous sense of doom leading up to the inevitably bleak conclusion, saving one final twist at the end.
‘Elmet’ is a compassionately written and highly original novel and I hope the Man Booker Prize shortlist exposure will be just the beginning of a successful career for Mozley who is clearly a very promising young writer.