A modern gothic, rural melodrama. At it’s heart ‘Elmet’ is the gritty story of a complex family dynamic and a good vs. evil battle that has us rooting for the questionably deplorable underdog. A solid 4 stars to start with, with a few days to mull over this story, this has crept up to a well deserved 5 stars from me.
At the head of our tight knit familial trio, we have ‘Daddy’. A violent and damaged man who is driven by a primal love and need to care for his family and those less fortunate. Daddy has an almost Robin Hood type quality that endears us to him despite his obvious flaws. Whilst he clearly loves his children, he also lets them drink and smoke, exposes them to violence and often deserts them for long periods at a time. A bare knuckle fighter, for want of an honest trade, he manages to be a formidable fighter, masculine and intimidating, whilst carrying a fierce need to protect what is his and having a strong sense of honour.
Fourteen year old Daniel, son of Daddy, narrates this story. A quiet, somewhat effeminate boy with a kind nature, who cares more about ‘making house’ than following in the barbarous footsteps of his father. His sister, the far less inhibited Cathy, is a year older and a clear tomboy. She is far closer to her fathers nature, and appears to take after him in looks too, both dark and brooding. There is a strength to her character that I think was really interesting to play with. Looking at the offspring of this man in this way, one boy and one girl, manages to say a lot about the intricacies of gender without doing so explicitly, and I felt this aspect of the novel was really unique.
On the surface, this is a fairly uneventful story, yet the poetic language draws greatly on the landscape and creates a wonderfully rustic environment which acts as the backdrop to this curious life. For most of their lives Daniel and Cathy live with Granny Morley, who acts as a constant presence in their lives, whilst Daddy and the briefly mentioned (yet equally tortured) mother, flutter in and out of their lives. Their childhoods appear strained, but in many ways they live a normal life. Events lead Daddy to take his children away from this normality, to the place their mother was from. He builds a house purely from scratch sourcing materials from the surrounding forests, and they live primitively but happily. Unfortunately, but not entirely unintentionally, he happens to be building on a piece of woodland that isn’t his to build on. From this point on, the melodrama begins to creep in, and we are drawn towards a surprising and intense climax.
I really, really enjoyed this book. Whilst admittedly not for everyone, this is a fantastic debut, and Mozley has a voice that I definitely want to hear more from. I’d love some short stories from this author, another novel, to hear her speak – it’s safe to say I’m excited for what might be to come. I’m so glad a novel like this is being recognised by the Man Booker Prize this year. Whilst I’m doubtful it could win, I hope it at least makes the shortlist, as it’s my absolute favourite of the list so far.