This is one cracking novel. It has something of The Cement Garden about it – the claustrophobia not the incest – something of Lord of the Flies and something ancient that I can’t identify.
Told through the eyes of young Danny who lives with his older sister Cathy – she’s about 15 or so – and their “Daddy”. The mother having disappeared years ago. Daddy, is a brute of a man, who makes his money in illegal bare knuckle fights, or formerly as an enforcer and general thug for local moneyed men. But having moved back to do the parenting of these two abandoned kids, now that Granny Morley has died, he settles them first in a kind of bivouac between two vans in an old corpse of trees while he builds their house. They don’t own the land. They are constantly aware of the threat of eviction by Price the landowner, but he initially keeps his distance.
They don’t do much schooling, except of an informal sort with a woman friend in the village, but they learn about nature, foraging, trapping and killing. They’re not quite feral but they don’t feel that need any society or company. They look inwards and each provides what the others lack. A tight sibling bond that is compelling without being unsettling.
The land, somewhere between York and the Wolds and the coast, is truly Yorkshire, with its dark hedges and heavy mud, scratching briars, plentiful corvids and a landowning class that see all of it as theirs to do with as they will…and woe betide any that cross them. There is a subplot about the unfair treatment of day labourers and the local people, nearly all of whom rent their housing from Price or one of his cronies, which eventually draws Daddy/John into mixing more widely.
The tension and blunt brutality of the first 250 pages do not fully prepare the reader for the violence of the final 50 pages, but in truth there was nowhere else the story could go. It is justified. Naming the novel ‘Elmet’ brings obvious connections with Ted Hughes to mind and through that a link to something more definitely, anciently and unarguably Yorkshire: a kind of mythical essential Yorkshire that only exists in the minds of certain types. But there is something there, something that Mozley has tapped into.
The novel is a glorious success and it is hard to believe that it is the author’s first.