Booker Shortlist Reading Guide

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Fiona Mozley.
Fiona Mozley.PHOTO: JOHN MURRAY

Who: At 29, Fiona Mozley is the youngest author in the running for this year's Booker. Should the part-time British bookseller win, she would be the second youngest to do so after New Zealander Eleanor Catton, who won in 2013 aged 28. Elmet, her debut novel set in the rugged Yorkshire landscape of her childhood, was not even published at the time it was longlisted.

Every Man Booker prize has its wild cards and this year's is Fiona Mozley's Elmet - which is fitting, given that her debut novel is about the wild card, both the exhilarating promise of its unlikely success and the odds stacked against it.

The novel is set in the grim, beautiful landscape of Yorkshire, where she grew up.

Its young narrator, Daniel, lives with his sister Cathy and their father, a former bareknuckle fighter, in a house the latter built with his bare hands. Having pulled the children out of school, he raises them to forage and hunt in the wild.

But the copse of ash trees they have claimed as home is not theirs under the law. It belongs to Price, a cruel landowner who keeps the area's working-class folk under his thumb through a system of rising rents and depressed wages. When Price comes to take back his land, their father rallies the villagers in a revolt that hurtles towards a stunning, terrible conclusion.

Mozley imbues this contemporary small-town struggle with the air of the legendary, clear from the start in her choice of title. It is named for the last independent Celtic kingdom in England, before it was invaded and conquered by the Kingdom of Northumbria in the late seventh century.

  • ELMET

  • John Murray/ Paperback/ 312 pages/ $22.95/Books Kinokuniya/ 4/5 stars

The children's father is a Samsonlike figure of impossible strength, whose method of parenting leaves his children feeling "more like an army than a family". But for all his physical prowess, he is out of place in a world where the real power lies with men who have the law wrapped around their little fingers.

Daniel, in love with learning and intensely sensitive to the world around him, has a druidic quality. But it is Cathy who is the wild card in this family. She possesses the same mythic strength as her father, but is painfully conscious that it resides in the body of a woman.

It has been so rare to see depictions of women who can dominate through sheer physical strength, in text and on screen, that one experiences a heady rush seeing superheroes such as Wonder Woman and Jessica Jones in action.

One experiences that same rush with Cathy, behind whose quiet demeanour simmers an unquenchable rage at the fate prescribed by her gender: made for childbirth, marked for sexual violence.

"We all grow into our coffins, Danny," she tells her brother. "And I saw myself growing into mine."

Her weakness, as she is well aware, is her love of her brother; hurting him is the only way to truly hurt her.

It is this unusual sibling bond that knits together this raw, lovely novel and gives its bleak violence a tender core.

If you like this, read: A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (Birlinn, 2017, $33.78, available for order from Books Kinokuniya), a trilogy about a young woman trying to make a living in a hardscrabble Scottish farming community at the start of the 20th century.

•A version of this review ran in Life on Aug 29.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2017, with the headline 'Elmet by Fiona Mozley'. Print Edition | Subscribe