My first reaction upon finishing this book was to e-mail the friend who’d sent it to me and ask if she was okay, primarily because this is the latest in a string of sexual assault revenge fantasies she’s been recommending to me. Fortunately, she is alright and the theme has been entirely coincidental, but Elmet is the kind of book to make you look at the rest of your life and wonder whether you should be asking questions.
The best of these questions are, to a certain extent, political. I’ve considered myself a centrist social democrat for years (despite living in America, where the terms together combine to mean “stinking commie” for the average person. They barely even register in the political consciousness of most Malaysians, amongst whom I lived before this,) but Elmet had me leaning quite radically leftward in a “Down With Landowners! Hurray Nationalization!” sort of way given the privations that our main characters, a small family of three, have to undergo. And don’t @ me, I know full well that the real problem is lack of accountability no matter who is in charge: I just very much appreciated Fiona Mozley’s skill in eliciting this reaction.
Anyhoo, after a grade school incident involving Cathy, the daughter, followed by the death of their Grandma Morley, our family ups stakes from suburban life and moves to live off the land in Yorkshire. Cathy is devoted to Daddy, a giant of a man who finances their lifestyle with various illegal but not necessarily immoral pursuits. At the age of seventeen, she is feral and tough and deceptively strong. Her younger brother, Daniel, prefers domesticity over the outdoors, and takes pride in his cooking and decorating. He’s also more attached to Vivien, the neighbor Daddy’s asked to help educate the children, than restless Cathy is.
Their years of idyll are brought to an end when local landowner, Prince, discovers that they’ve built a house on his (untended) property. A corrupt man, Prince prefers to own rather than to lead, and soon sets himself and Daddy on a violent collision course. The chapters leading directly up to the climactic scene of the novel leave you with a sick feeling of oppression, as it looks like our family will be destroyed cruelly and cheaply. Fortunately, this it not (entirely) the case, but I did not find it a fun read and felt the catharsis too small when measured against the misery of the rest of it. Daniel and Vivien’s last few exchanges were especially heart-breaking for me, and I get that people are selfish and don’t change but eh. If I wanted to experience that, I’d just turn on the news.
I also didn’t particularly care for the style of Ms Mozley’s writing. While there were certainly lovely bits of woodland prose, there were also ponderous descriptions of, say, how the family cooks lamb chops that were unnecessarily belaboured. And as sex positive as I like to be, I’m pretty sure Daniel was still a minor and not legally able to give consent, no matter how he welcomed certain sexual advances. While I appreciated his seeming obliviousness as to gender, I didn’t think it made any sense that neither Cathy or Daddy asked him if he needed new clothes or a haircut, especially given the amount of time spent describing Daddy’s grooming habits. Also, the entire reaction to what happened to Cathy at school made no goddamned sense. Instead of kicking up a righteous fuss, Daddy just apologizes then essentially runs away? It seems completely out of character with the rest of his behavior.
Anyway, I can see why Elmet was nominated for the 2017 Man Booker but it wasn’t for me. Now to figure out how to say all this to the friend who sent me the novel…