A Bygone Present

By Fiona Mozley
Algonquin Books, 2017

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Fiona Mozley is living a novelist’s dream. A 29-year-old studying for a PhD in medieval history, she was looking forward to publishing her debut novel in September of 2017 with a small press (JM Originals in the U.K.) when she found her book longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In a year studded with famous names (including Arundhati Roy, Ali Smith, Sebastian Barry, Colson Whitehead, and Zadie Smith), Mozley stood out as the wild card. And then her novel, Elmet, further surpassed expectations by being named to the shortlist of six (ultimately losing to Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders).

But despite Mozley’s relative obscurity, Elmet holds its own with the other Booker titles. The narrative occurs in two timeframes. One is in the present, where a teenager named Daniel is traveling around England in search of his sister, Cathy. The other, which constitutes the majority of the book, is in the past, as Daniel thinks back on his untraditional childhood up to the moment of Cathy’s disappearance. As young children they live in the north of England with their grandmother and go to a local school. But after their grandmother’s death, their father moves them to the West Yorkshire countryside (“Elmet” was the name of a medieval West Yorkshire kingdom). He builds a house alongside a copse, and the three live a secluded life of hunting and foraging.

Daddy, as the children call him, makes his money as a bare-knuckles fighter, taking advantage of his size and strength:

Daddy was king. A foot taller than the tallest of [other] men, Daddy was gargantuan. Each of his arms was as thick as two of theirs. His fists were near the size of their heads. Each of them could have sat curled up in his ribcage like a foetus in a mother’s womb. [Other] men did not move like Daddy.

For a man with such a violent profession, he’s surprisingly sensitive. Unlike most other hunters in the area, he sets humane traps for animals and kills them as swiftly as possible to avoid frightening them. And despite his own macho background, Daddy raises Cathy and Daniel in a non-judgmental, almost genderless fashion. Cathy prefers to hunt and spend her time outside, and Daniel prefers to cook and decorate the house. Daddy never tells them how men and women are “supposed” to act, so they shape their lives according to their instincts.

Daniel’s wistful domestic reflections take an abrupt turn when Daddy is confronted by Mr. Price – the man who owns the land where their house now sits. The focus on rural life in the first half of the book quickly shifts to a focus on Daddy as a modern-day Robin Hood, banding together the local renters and laborers to take on the greedy landowners. Thatcher-era land reforms allowed public council houses to be converted into private property owned by wealthy landlords, and the landlords of Elmet, according to Daddy’s collaborators, “all have dealings, as they say. They’ll have invested money together. Bubbling around in the same pot….All led by Price.”

It’s only in this emerging context of class struggle that some of the book’s earlier scenes shift into place. The main reason Daddy removes Cathy and Daniel from school when they’re young is that Cathy is bullied by three rich, entitled boys in her year. They harass her physically and verbally, and when Cathy complains to her teacher, the teacher doesn’t believe her because they’re “nice boys.” One day, Cathy finally fights back and sends them home bruised and bloodied. But the boys’ mothers complain to the school, and the headmistress calls Daddy in to lecture him, stating, “I hope you know that your daughter’s behaviour was unacceptable. The attack was unprovoked….I know Daniel and Cathy might not have had quite the same opportunities in life as Gregory, Adam and Callum but that’s no excuse for behaviour such as hers.” Daddy apologizes to the headmistress and quietly leaves the office. But at home, he tells his children a different story:

Later, Daddy told us that after he had heard the teacher’s comments on the conduct of the boys he saw that there would be no real use in responding with his true thoughts. [The headmistress’s] assessment was simply the way people saw things, he told us. It was the way the world was and we just had to find methods of our own to work against it and to strengthen ourselves however we could.

Author Fiona Mozley

Author Fiona Mozley

At the heart of Elmet is the idea that societal systems aren’t designed to protect the vulnerable – women, the poor, the landless, the uneducated. But back in Daniel and Cathy’s school days, their family wasn’t part of a larger community of struggling people. Now, as they’re threatened by Mr. Price, they find that they can band together with all the locals who’ve suffered from the landowners’ greed. In Daddy’s quiet, imposing presence, the people sense a leader they can rally behind, and they begin to believe that they can make the kind of change collectively that they never could individually. The theme of medieval rebellion creeps cleverly into various parts of the narrative, as when Daniel traces a helmet and visor onto the misty window of a bus, and when the whole neighborhood gathers together to drink beer, eat meat, and plan war strategies around a bonfire. Mozley suggests that if Robin Hood still walked the English countryside, his modern rebellion would take the form of wage and rent strikes.

Throughout these proceedings, the narrative is carefully constrained by Daniel’s first-person perspective. Unlike his father and sister, he’s a passive, watchful character, and his narration mostly consists of basic facts, without much emotion or interpretation. When he mentions that their mother used to visit their grandmother’s house from time to time, he describes how she would sleep for days and then disappear, leaving behind sweaty, bloody sheets. He remembers, “I once asked Granny Morley why we found my mother’s blood on the white sheets. She replied that my mother bled when she was broken.” No more is said on the subject.

As a sheltered fourteen-year-old, Daniel doesn’t understand the historical or logistical intricacies of the class war they’re waging, which means he can’t closely examine any of the political machinations. But this only highlights how clearly he communicates the overarching principles of the struggle. Similarly, his characterizations of Daddy and Cathy are simplistic and worshipful – he never questions that they’re the story’s heroes, because he loves them and can’t imagine them otherwise. This limited perspective leaves readers plenty of room to ask questions and fill in the story’s underlying complexity for themselves.

Despite these narrative strengths, Daniel’s voice is also Elmet’s main weakness. His memories are surprisingly precise when it comes to settings, like the time he visits a neighbor’s house for the first time:

The sitting room was light despite the heavy green plants propped up on the windowsills. The French windows faced south-east towards the morning sun, and light poured in over the sharply edged papers that had been placed carefully on specific surfaces. There was a deep sofa covered by worn blue velvet, with two large sitting cushions. They dipped to meet each other in the middle but were still quite plump at their outer edges. There was a blanket on one of the arms with a scene stitched together with red and white wool obscured by the folds. There was a carpet atop a carpet, one grey and fitted to the size and shape of the room, and one a set rectangle with tassels on the two shorter edges and a pattern of lines and angles that I would have sat down on and traced my fingers over were I younger or alone. There was a coffee table in the centre of the room and a round upright table by the French windows with a white cotton cloth and a tucked-in chair. There was a plate and a cup of tea or coffee on this table, and I supposed Vivien had eaten her breakfast there. There was a fireplace with a smoke-screen in front of it, and although there was a fire already made up, nothing had yet been lit. Fire tools were in a bucket on the hearth. Tongs. A poker. A shovel. A coarse brush. And triangles of compacted newspaper were stored in a small open-topped wicker chest, safely stowed in a corner away from the fireplace. There were some ornaments on the mantel, and I remember particularly a small clock with Roman numbers, whose face was set into a roughly hewn piece of limestone.

(Right – it’s the clock that he remembers “particularly.”)

These lengthy, meticulous descriptions serve a purpose: they help the reader understand Daniel’s mentality as a keen observer. But this level of prosaic detail frequently makes the reading experience boring, and often Daniel strays from a perceptive boy to someone who could intern for Sherlock Holmes.

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More significant than the problem of memory is the problem of vocabulary. Daniel leaves his local school at the age of six, and there’s no mention of him living a Matilda or I Capture the Castle-style childhood, surrounding himself with books in the absence of formal learning. He, Cathy, and Daddy all speak with rural Yorkshire dialects, producing sentences like, “I felt as if there wandt owt I could do that would change them.” But Daniel’s narrative voice sounds more like that of an Oxbridge PhD graduate than an isolated teenager. Sentence after sentence presents false notes: “There was a residue of masticated toast stuck between his front teeth”; “The chains that held the [swing] seat were rusted iron. They crackled as my mother leaned our weight against them, and ferrous crumbs dropped as she rocked”; “Each vista was a quiet simulacrum of the last: duller, hazier, but no significant alterations.”

The improbably sophisticated vocabulary can be seen as an homage to the lyricism of folk ballads, hearkening back to tales of woodland adventures through language as well as plot. The same could be said of several dramatic moments that feature long, poetic retellings of past events. In one such scene, a man comes to Daddy’s door to tell him about a murder, describing the dead boy’s body in detail:

[W]hen we peeled back his eyes they were wide open, like they are sometimes, you know, on dead things. Animals, birds, people, the same. Wide open in astonishment; much wider than the eyelids could ever stretch in real life, like the lad wanted to capture all he could of the world, like he wanted to take a still image of that pretty little wood, the light coming through the trees, the little flowers beneath the ash and oaks, capture it and take it with him. Just that one still, wide-eyed picture. He used that last few seconds to fill his eyes with colour.

After three such pages, the man tells Daddy that he came to the house to warn him to run, because the boy’s avengers will be coming to Daddy’s house soon. In scenes such as these, the author clearly takes the wheel from the characters’ hands, lingering in the moment because she’s willing to sacrifice plausibility for beautiful language.

Despite these distracting choices, Daniel’s elegant narration brings the West Yorkshire landscape alive:

Spring came in earnest with clouds of pollen and dancing swifts. The little birds, back here to nest after the flight of a million miles, were buffeted by the wind, which blew hot then cold and clipped unripened catkins off the ash. The swifts were too light to charge at the gusts like gulls or crows, and through them I saw wind as sea. Thick, pillowy waves that rolled at earthen, wooded shores and threw tiny creatures at jutting rocks. The swifts surfed and dived and cut through the invisible mass, which to them must have roared and wailed as loudly as any ocean on earth, only to catch the air again on the updraft and rise to the crest.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the landscape in Elmet is that Mozley combines the natural world and the industrial world as if they aren’t in conflict with one another. When Daniel talks about the countryside, he describes trees, woodland animals, mud, and plants alongside train tracks, cars, mine pits, and steel. This juxtaposition creates a curious feeling that the story occurs both in the recent past, and in some timeless dimension where bow and arrows coexist with trains. Mozley suggests that you don’t need to go back in time or deny the present to find the past. And it’s this knowledge and reverence for the land exactly as it is, not as it was imagined to be in a perfect bygone time, that inspires the downtrodden renters and laborers to stake their claim to it. Wealth, Mozley argues, shouldn’t be the main factor involved in land ownership, and the very concept of “owning” the land deserves to be reexamined.

Given Elmet’s flaws and the strength of this year’s longlist, its inclusion on the Booker shortlist was strange. But it’s an eclectic and worthwhile book to highlight, and Mozley’s success sends a clear message to young novelists: their names might be unknown at the moment, but if the quality of their work is comparable to the best in the industry, it’ll be recognized as such.

Jennifer Helinek