Sunday 15 September 2019

Gothic tale of a sylvan family

Fiction: Elmet, Fiona Mozley, JM Originals €12.99


Margaret Madden

An epigraph from Ted Hughes's Remains of Elmet explains that "Elmet was the last independent Celtic kingdom in England… a sanctuary for refugees from the law". Fiona Mozley sets her Man Booker Prize shortlisted debut novel in the vast Yorkshire countryside, where 14-year-old Daniel lives with his older sister, Cathy, and their father, a former bare-knuckle fighter ("He fought at bouts that were arranged for money, [with] travellers or gypsies, rough farmers, criminals from the towns, owners of underground nightclubs and bars, drug dealers and thugs").

They live on the outskirts of society, in a home that Daddy built from scratch. "Our copse provided the materials we needed and an undulant terrain in which to run and hide… this was our strange sylvan otherworld... He wanted to keep us separate, in ourselves, apart from the world."

Their basic home is built on land belonging to local landlord Mr Price, who holds the whole area to ransom with his high rents and threat of eviction. "Mr Price detested that which he could not control. We lived here on his doorstep yet he had no access to our lives. We did not pay him rent, we did not work for him, we did not owe him any favours. And so he feared us. Daddy said that to Mr Price people were like wasps zipping around his head, ready to sting at any moment."

Daddy sees no harm in claiming the unused copse as the family homestead. They are doing no harm. They hunt with hand-carved bows and arrows, they forage for food in the woods and depend on the kindness of local merchants for additional supplies. Gender roles are reversed, with sensitive Daniel taking on the traditionally feminine duties and Cathy becoming the strong, hunter-gatherer. The community begins to fight back against the corruption of capitalism and decide on a rent-freeze, with Daddy helping to protect the tenants from Mr Price's burly bailiffs. Things take a nasty turn and Daddy is issued with an ultimatum which could affect the family's future.

With subtle colloquial dialogue and vibrant descriptive passages, this is an evocative read, which deserves attention.

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