By Rebecca Russell
Fiona Mozley is doing a PhD in Medieval History, which is obvious from reading her novel, Elmet. What is not obvious is that Mozley is only 29 and that this is her debut novel.
Elmet was the name of the last independent Celtic kingdom in England which survived until the seventh century. Mozley’s novel is set in the twenty-first century yet her fourteen-year-old character Daniel still refers to his woodland home as ‘Elmet’. Indeed, he and his family embody this ancient kingdom: they exist segregated from society in a copse they do not own, bent on defending their home from outsiders. Daniel only ever refers to his father as ‘Daddy’, though he is more akin to historic Elmet’s ruler, a man said to have ‘inspired terror’. Daniel’s Daddy is the epitome of the medieval masculine ideal, a ‘gargantuan’ who earns his living bare knuckle boxing and relies on the surrounding woodland for survival: building his house from scratch, and teaching Daniel and his sister, Cathy, to hunt with bow and arrows.
Elmet is an old idea, cleverly thrust into a modern skin. It is a reconfiguration of the medieval obsession with the ‘outlaw’, and whether they have any place in civilised society. Daddy becomes Robin Hood, forced to attempt to bring down the capitalistic Price family which threaten his livelihood. He emulates heroic men of pre- Norman legends, settling his scores via the blood feud rather than the law. Mozley evokes a sense of longing for the archaic life which this lone family lead. The carefully constructed atmosphere allows the reader to sink into her descriptive style. One appreciates their campfire dinners, hand-carved furniture and home brewed cider. Excessive description usually bores me but Mozley’s only excites me, luring me further into the forest of this antiquated world.
‘Millions of men […] died dancing in the old style’, are words constituting an early sign that the conflict between historic and modern morality will intensify, but they do not prepare you for the savage, gothic explosion of rage in which it culminates. This is the crowning glory of Elmet. Under Mozley’s unassuming touch, you are lulled into a gentle and affecting tale. You forget for a while that a medieval subject matter often predetermines vicious brutality and instead experience a messy unwinding of almost every established contemporary concept. Elmet shocks and its presence on the Man Booker longlist is no surprise.
Illustration: Katie Butler