You might expect that there’d be a little bit of Beowulf in a book by a medieval studies scholar in York, England. Fiona Mozley’s debut novel adds some Heathcliff, too, for a touch of Yorkshire Moors gothic. But even if you can spot the forbears in Elmet, you probably won’t suspect what you’re getting in for in this atmospheric tale of a man and his children living off the grid near the Yorkshire village that gives the book its title.
Daniel, a scrawny, young teen, is the narrator of the tale, although his language is precocious and his poetic descriptions of land and moment hint at a much older person. His father is a mountain of a man, fierce and violent in his dealings with the world but tender and nurturing with his two children. Cathy, his sister, grows stronger through the novel, honing her wild edge and becoming a creature of action and justice as the cruel landowner, Mr. Price, preys on the family.
The story begins with the family camping in the wild but they soon squat on a piece of land near a coppiced forest, which they tend as they build a sturdy home. Their relations with the village are strained even before the dastardly Price shows up. Daddy is a hired thug who metes out rough enforcement of shadowy contracts. The children are schooled by a woman in town who seems uncertain of how much care to show them. But on the hill where the home grows, all is an idyll of domestic harmony.
It comes apart, as all such stories demand, but when it does, and fierce passions are exposed, surprising heroes emerge. There is something primal and mythic in the woods and you’re drawn in to as if the bonfires with their stories were meant for you.
Elmet earned Mozley a Man Booker Prize nomination in 2017 and the reasons are clear. The writing is luminous and the tale-telling hints at layers of meaning always at hand. It’s the kind of book you pick up expecting to read a chapter and find yourself still reading 100 pages later. If you go into these woods at night, you’re in for a good surprise.