by Fiona Mozley
Fiona Mozley is 2017’s bracing new name on the Man Booker longlist. Like Graeme Macrae Burnet, the bracing new name on 2016’s longlist, she made the grade with a strange, violent novel about outsiders battling for survival in the British wilds.
Elmet, as Ted Hughes wrote, was “the last independent Celtic kingdom in England […] a sanctuary for refugees from the law”. This isn’t a bad way to consider Mozley’s hero, John Smythe, whose hobbies include bare-knuckle boxing and hunting for the food he puts on the table. That he picks fights and has even killed “in the peat fields of Ireland or that black mud of Lincolnshire” is something he shares evenly with his children, Daniel (our narrator) and Cathy, his Brontesque daughter.
Smythe is at perpetual war with the world, mainly to escape its clutches. So he builds a house “with materials from the land here about”, but without permission of the landowners, a tension that builds towards the novel’s tragic climax.
Arguably Elmet’s nearest recent literary equivalent is Jerusalem (2009), Jez Butterworth’s prize-winning play about a motley crew of travellers that interrogated modern England by rewinding to the ancient. Elmet is darker and bloodier but, thanks to Daniel’s narration, also moving in an unexpected fashion. An astounding, haunting debut.