Small-town struggle with air of the legendary

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 Mozley grew up, and it is clear she bears a bone-deep love for those "badlands" under "glaciated moors", as British poet laureate Ted Hughes, the most famous son of the West Riding of Yorkshire, has put it.

The novel's young narrator, Daniel, lives with his sister Cathy and their father, a former bareknuckle fighter, in a house he built with his bare hands. Having pulled them 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.

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.



    By Fiona Mozley

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

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, $30.85, 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 article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2017, with the headline 'Small-town struggle with air of the legendary'. Print Edition | Subscribe