30 April 2021

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

The timeframe of various lockdowns and openings have become a blur, but a month or so ago we visited A Different Drummer bookshop when doing so was possible.  I chose a copy of Quartet in Autumn Barbara Pym, We Are Michael Field by Emma Donoghue and Elmet because of the statement on the cover that it was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2017.  And, let's be honest, an added attraction was that it had been discounted as a last copy.  The blurb evoked a level of earthiness with a whisper of something dark.  I will just say that it has been years since I found a book so compelling and frightening.

Daniel and Cathy are siblings living what seems to be an idyllic life in rural Yorkshire.  Nestled deep in the forest their new home takes shape, emerging from the clay with materials they glean from the land.  The teens watch fox and hare, learn to hunt, how to carve arrows and use a bow, and play with two new puppies.  Daniel is the younger of the two with little promise of ever growing into the giant of a man his father is.  Cathy is sinewy but strong with a watchfulness that is hypervigilant to danger. 

Associations with the traveller community come with prejudice so when Cathy defends herself against an attack of bullying, the teacher sides with the boys.  But just to back up for a minute, let me share the exquisite prose to illustrate what is leading up to be a brutish act....

   The salty gusts were hitting hard from over the North Sea.  Cathy's hair, black as Whitby jet, whipped about her as she stood up to face the boys.  The toggles of her coat beat against each other, sounding like the sweet wooden pulse of a marimba being struck by the wind.  I watched her the whole time.  I could not take my eyes off her.  I was ever her witness. 

When Grandma Morley dies, Daddy moves his family to a piece of land that doesn't belong to him.  The whereabouts of Daniel and Cathy's mother are vague but there is a connection between her past, Mr Price and the land. 

Mr Price commands respect in the community through power and fear and his sons are being trained to follow in his footsteps.  The wages Mr Price and his 'associates' pays to factory and farm workers are low while the rent charged to those living in his houses is high.  Mr Price is the sort of man who hires a strong arm to collect monies owing and Daddy has been used in the past, but he is tired of doing another man's bidding.    

There are two fights left in Daddy.  The first is for the community by clawing back some of the control held by Mr Price in a proposed strike action and the withholding of rent.  The second is a bare knuckle fight on a grand scale that will net gamblers a large payoff.   

This story could not be further from the sort of book I normally choose to read.  In fact,  I'm still recovering from the raw brutality of the last dozen or so pages, but the precision and brilliance of the writing is remarkable.  I was particularly struck by the feeling that if you removed all mention of vehicles this novel would feel steeped in the setting of a medieval village.  The issues of land ownership, the protection of family, and the quest for power were as relevant then as they are today.  And as a final thought, the characterization of Cathy will stay with me for a very long time, down to her strength of mind and body.  Any more than that would be a spoiler, I'm afraid. 

A dark but exceptional read that made me very glad it crossed my path.

Bigger Trees Near Warter by David Hockney

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