One of the surprises on Britain’s Man Booker Prize shortlist last year was Elmet, the fine debut novel from Fiona Mozley. American readers now have the chance to experience the novel’s atmospheric writing and its vivid portrait of a family struggling to outrun its past.
As we learn from the Ted Hughes excerpt in the book’s epigraph, Elmet, where the novel is set, was “the last independent Celtic kingdom in England” that, centuries later, “were still a ‘badlands’, a sanctuary for refugees from the law.” Now part of modern-day Yorkshire, this area is still home to some shady characters. The narrator is 14-year-old Daniel, who lives with his older sister, Cathy, and their father, John, a “bearded giant” who once bare-knuckle boxed for money, in a bungalow that Daddy, as Daniel calls him, built from scratch in a copse far from the town where they used to live.
Cathy is the tougher sibling, rolling cigarettes and beating up schoolboys who try to assault her, while Daniel prefers to sit quietly under trees and learn about poetry from Vivien, a neighbor woman Daddy knows through the children’s mother, who was frequently absent during their early years.
The novel turns darker when a man named Price, an unscrupulous landlord, shows up at the bungalow. Price, whom Daddy once worked for, claims to hold the deed to the land Daddy built the house on and tells Daddy he has to work for him again if he wants to stay. As Daddy later tells his children, Price will cause “small nuisances” if they refuse.
The escalation of these nuisances constitutes much of Elmet’s drama. The gothic violence of the later pages is out of step with the earlier tone, but Elmet paints a memorable picture of fraught familial relationships and the perils of revenge.