Teenagers Daniel and his elder sister Cathy help their father to construct the isolated house in a hill-top copse which he does not own within earshot of the East Coast Main Line through Yorkshire, an odd choice for a rural retreat. Apart from a period attending school, where they found it hard to fit in, the pair have spent their childhoods as outsiders, dominated by their “Daddy” John, throwback to a former, simpler age, who wishes to have no truck with modern life, although to earn the money to make this possible, he engages at times with the sleazier parts of it, using his remarkable strength and skill as a bare-knuckle fighter (the name alone makes one wince in pain) in bouts arranged by gypsies and crooks. Portrayed as a kind of latter-day Robin Hood, he often channels his violence to settle scores against villains on behalf of those too physically weak to do so. Narrator Daniel describes how humanely “Daddy” traps and kills animals for food, but is he really a good man?
Daddy’s unconventional views are demonstrated in his attitude to land. “It’s idea a person can write summat on a bit of paper about a piece of land that lives and breathes, and changes and quakes and floods and dries, and that that person can used it as he will, or not at all, and that he can keep others off it, all because of a piece of paper. That’s part which means nowt to me.”
Unsurprisingly, owner of the land in question, Mr Price, takes issue with him over this, although there turn out to be other reasons for a long-term grievance between the two men. Can Daddy really hope to win against a wealthy wily, unscrupulous landowner? Brought up to defend themselves, how well will Daniel and Cathy be able to support their father when it comes to the crunch?
The location “Elmet” is inspired by the poetry of Ted Hughes, “The Remains of Elmet”, which he described as, “The Calder valley, west of Halifax, was the last ditch of Elmet, the last British Celtic kingdom to fall to the Angles. For centuries it was considered a more or less uninhabitable wilderness, a notorious refuge for criminals, a hide-out for refugees”. The novel also has hints of a latterday “Wuthering Heights”.
Author Fiona Mozley succeeds in creating a vivid sense of place, as regards both the natural landscape and the local community, impoverished by mine closures, where people struggle on zero hours contracts at the mercy of dishonest local employers. There is a convincing portrayal of the complex bond between the father and his children: caring and protective on one hand, he is unintentionally neglectful and damaging on the other. The children’s roles are a reversal of the norm, with Cathy strong and aggressive and Daniel gentle and domesticated.
I understand why many readers have praised this book, even how it came to be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Yet, although an original debut novel, it falls short for me in some fundamental ways. Perhaps the author wanted to portray Daniel as both immature and perceptive for his age, but his “voice” is inconsistent, switching between that of a naïve, inexperienced boy to observations and insights beyond his years. Poetic passages often sit oddly in the text, by turns overly sophisticated or grating:
“He was a human, and the gamut upon which his inner life trilled ranged from the translucent surface to beyond the deepest crevice of any sea. His music pitched above the hearing of hounds and below the trembling of trees.”
Since the author grew up in Yorkshire, I have to assume she has “captured” the local dialect, but many of the longer dialogues contain too much exposition. Some characters, like the children’s absent mother, or their neighbour Vivien, are underdeveloped. The violence of the climax surpasses everything which precedes it, but becomes quite implausible in the process. Also, the novel gains little from what has become the formulaic prologue trying to hook the reader by “giving away” some of the ultimate violent outcome, nor from the “flash forward” passages also in italics which show Daniel in the aftermath of events.