One of the reasons I enjoy following book prizes so much is that (as well as hoping to see books I’ve loved make their lists) they often introduce me to authors and books that wouldn’t have been on my radar otherwise. I think it’s fair to say that the general reading public had not heard of writer Fiona Mozley or her debut novel “Elmet” before it was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize – partly because it wasn’t published yet. (Its release was pushed forward because of its listing for this prize.) This might turn out to be both a blessing and a curse because it will put this new author under a heavier amount of scrutiny and criticism than a debut novel would typically receive. “Elmet” has been published by John Murray under their ‘JM Originals’ list – an excellent series first launched two years ago that self consciously seeks to promote fiction that is “fresh and distinctive” and that also “provokes and entertains”. It’s the same list which also produced Jessie Greengrass’ extraordinary and award-winning book of short stories “An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to the One Who Saw It.” Now this series has put out another big prize contender. “Elmet” fits all those descriptive aims for the ‘JM Originals’ list perfectly. It’s a curiously eerie tale about a small working class community whose meaning expands to say so much more about society in general and builds to a thrilling climax.
Adolescent Daniel is wandering northwards begging for food and barely surviving. We’re given sections of his journey in italics and these are interspersed with longer passages about his unusual upbringing. He’s mostly lived a cloistered existence with his physically intimidating, strong-willed father John (who he only refers to as Daddy) and his older sister Cathy in a house that Daddy built for them in a remote copse. They’ve had little to no contact with larger society other than a smattering of locals including a woman who gives John’s children a limited home education that’s partly centred around reading obsolete instruction manuals. Their lives are mostly harmonious until the local landowner Mr Price comes knocking along with his arrogant, spoiled sons. Civil unrest is being waged by the predominantly poor locals who break their backs for the few wealthy members of the community. Although he sought a self-sufficient and quiet life in this remote location, Daddy gets roped into these struggles and their peaceful lifestyle is interrupted.
The novel is partly concerned with the mystery of what motivated Daddy to remove his children from larger society as he’s done. Tales of rogue survivalist fathers inflicting their extreme lifestyles on children have been the focus of a number of recent novels including Claire Fuller’s “Our Endless Numbered Days” and Gabriel Tallent’s “My Absolute Darling”. In both cases, the father figures are darkly disturbing, but here the father is surprisingly tender despite his radical life choices, violent history and domineering appearance. This gives an interesting slant on the story and raises compelling questions about how children should be raised in a society which is unequivocally unjust. In this circumscribed existence Daddy can better protect his children and raise them with values devoid of the larger society’s prejudices, but it also preserves their overall ignorance of the world: “Everything he did now was to toughen us up against something unseen. He wanted to strengthen us against the dark things in the world. The more we knew of it, the better we would be prepared. And yet there was nothing of the world in our lives, only stories of it. We had been taken out of our school and our hometown to live with Daddy in a small copse.”
One of the most intriguing results of their isolated existence is that this brother and sister grow up at a remove from traditional gender roles. Cathy likes to wander through the forest and tries to engage other boys in sport while Daniel is drawn to more domestic duties frequently doing the cooking and cleaning for the whole family. There’s a fascinating section where Daniel describes how he doesn’t consciously think about himself as one gender or another. It’s a striking way of portraying how we all primarily inhabit our lives as individuals devoid of identity labels which we’re often only made aware of when we come into contact with others who only initially see what’s superficial. Daniel’s path towards physical and sexual maturity is interestingly portrayed, but I would have liked to seen it explored even more in the narrative.
It’s skilful how Mozley kept me hooked throughout this story’s unusual situation, dropping clues so that I could gradually and satisfyingly piece things together and ramping up the tension in a way which kept me on edge. Who could say what her prospects are for advancing in the competition for this year’s Booker Prize which includes so many astounding novels? But I’m glad to have been introduced to a writer whose vision is so unique and shows such tremendous promise. I hope Mozley continues to publish more.