Why you should care
Because it’s a novel of our times.
What many already know about Elmet is that it landed a coveted spot on the short list for this year’s Man Booker Prize, beating authors such as Zadie Smith and Colson Whitehead. Extraordinary considering that prior to the announcement of the long list, most didn’t know either the book or the author — Fiona Mozley’s debut was yet to be published.
A provocative commentary on power and the class divide, the story is set in West Yorkshire, a few miles from where I was born and raised. It’s unusual for tales of this area to be championed by major publishing houses. England has long been geographically divided, the wealth and power focused in the south while the decline of industry has left high unemployment and shorter life expectancy in the north. The high living costs in London combined with unpaid internships mean there are few working-class people with roles in the publishing industry, and so our stories are less likely to be told.
… it’s a matter of when, not if, the violent tension will explode.
The story begins with “Daddy“ who builds a house in a copse in the woods for himself and his teenage children, Daniel and Cathy. The land on which he builds is owned by Price, the most influential man in the area. Daddy is fully aware of the antagonism this will cause, but, as the best bare-knuckle fighter in the U.K. and Ireland, he wields his own form of power. From this moment, the two men are pitted against each other; it’s a matter of when, not if, the violent tension will explode.
The disparity between the two men is further highlighted by their speech. Price’s dialog is in standard English, while Daddy has a Yorkshire accent, a rarity in contemporary literature. Cathy and Daniel also have Yorkshire accents; however, Daniel narrates the novel in standard English, marking him out as different even within his own family unit. His love of reading illustrates that being from this background doesn’t exclude someone from literature and learning. It’s a triumph of Mozley’s writing that she’s able to give these working-class characters their own voices without patronizing them.
Also remarkable is the novel’s depiction of Cathy’s struggle with the sexual violence enacted on her. From the squaddy who brushes her thigh to the boy who puts his hand up her top and calls her a slut to two attempted rapes, the violence faced by Cathy becomes entwined with the struggle between Price and her father. This highlights the abuse of power and ties it to the theme of class. Cathy’s responses to these incidents shape who she becomes, coming to understand the language of violence and how she can use it — a timely thread considering the recent outpouring of women’s stories in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations.
Elmet’s strengths lie in the characterizations of Daddy, Daniel and Cathy and the way power structures are played out through them. Mozley’s working-class characters belie stereotype and humanize people often caricatured in literature, while ideas about sexual violence against women provide a commentary on our current cultures.
Naomi Frisby is a writer and interviewer based in Yorkshire. Her short stories have been short-listed for the White Review Prize and long-listed for the Manchester Fiction Prize. Her blog, The Writes of Woman, is a celebration of female writers and their work.