Review: Elmet

“But if something happens to my body. Well, I am able to put myself in such a position, that it’s like it’s not really happening. And if it’s like it’s not really happening that means it’s not really happening. Do you see what I mean?” – Fiona Mozley

Elmet by Fiona Mozley
311 pages
Genre: Fiction
Published by JM Originals, 2017
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed by Indiana
Re-readability: I don’t think I’ll revisit this one.

From the first few pages, this was a disorienting tale. It was difficult to place the characters in a certain time period. The story feels medieval, though references to 1900s technology sneak in, grounding it in a more recent, though no less violent, context.  
Narrated by Daniel, Elmet is a haunting tale of a family upheld by a father who lives by a pre-Norman philosophy. He doesn’t own the land the family lives on, though he built a home on it years ago where Daniel and his sister Cathy live. John or Daddy as Daniel calls him, is known for his “gargantuan” size and his boxing abilities. While in the ring, he can beat anyone, and he often does to make money for the family. But at home, he’s a kind father figure and is usually gentle with both Cathy and Daniel.

The family is widely self-sustaining. They hunt for food and chop their own firewood. John doesn’t trust the school system so he sends Cathy and Daniel to a woman who he trusts to teach them. Daniel, who is sensitive and his father’s inverse, loves his time spent with the teacher, absorbing as much as he can from her. But Cathy, at 15-years-old rolls her own cigarettes and wants to learn to fight like her father, doesn’t want to have anything to do with the teacher. She sees book learning as a waste of time and instead goes wandering when they’re supposed to have lessons.

Fueling Cathy’s toughness are several boys in the village, who assault her and threaten to do much more. While John seems like the obviously mercurial figure, it’s Cathy who I found to be the more compelling and terrifying of the two. With no mother figure—the family doesn’t speak of her—Cathy is forced to figure out the beginnings of womanhood and learn how to maintain her wildness.     

By just about every sense of the word, the family is different. They exist literally on the outside of civilization. John distrusts many people in the town and they don’t trust him either. Price, the man who actually owns the land that John’s house is on, is a powerful figure in the area, employing many in the town and renting homes to most.

When the employees decide they want to rebel against this, John steps up and leads the charge, helping them fight for better wages and lower rent. The lynchpin conflict of the story is whether Price will continue to let John and his children live on the land peaceably.   

Elmet is a lyrically haunting and violent story, filled with opposing philosophies playing out in battles that feel more like physical and cultural wars.

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