The YMTA bookclub was started so that readers from York and Münster can meet virtually and discuss books about local places or by local authors. We meet for an hour online, breaking into two rooms to chat in English or German, coming back together thirty minutes later.
Our Autumn 2023 discussion was about Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, her debut novel and long-listed for the Booker Prize in 2017. It was suggested for the club by one of the York readers who remembered it as a strange and powerful depiction of the lives of people living not far outside of York, but who were living at the margins of society.
Fiona Mozley grew up in York and studied for her PhD in Medieval History at the University of York, aspects which fitted well with the philosophy of the bookclub. Turns out the book gave nightmares to one of our members but to others it was lyrical, evocative and intriguing. So our discussion began!
We started by commenting on the out of time feeling evoked by the setting of the novel, the way that the plot opens with the central characters, a family of three, building their home in a copse somewhere near the East Coast railway line and a power station (possibly Drax?). The family build and live in a house they have made from wood and survive by living off the landscape. They are completely off grid - making their own furniture, growing and catching their food, using fires to cook. One of our readers from Münster is a medievalist and commented on the way that the novel seems to allude to these early medieval ways of living, that there are very few modern aspects of life that are present in the text. We agreed this gave the novel a fairytale quality.
The title of the novel Elmet is explained by Ted Hughes in the prologue, ‘Elmet was the last independent Celtic kingdom in England and originally stretched out over the vale of York…But even into the seventeenth century this narrow cleft and its side-gunnels, under the glaciated moors, were still a ‘badlands’, a sanctuary for refugees from the law.’
We all felt that this echo of the past was present in the narrative, both in the lack of reference to contemporary ways of living and in the liminal existence of the family. The family live out of reach from the normal structures of society – the police, teachers, social services – as if these institutions do not exist. The medieval period was also a much more violent period than our own and one of readers commented that the novel contains within it a sense of violence which will in the end explode – which it does. It is this element of violence in the novel that gave nightmares to our more sensitive reader!
As a group we were split about whether we actually liked the novel or not. One member stated that the novel was very well written and believable and she didn’t mind the cruelty - whilst others felt it was too cruel and at the end unrealistic.
What we did all agree on was the extraordinary depiction of the central characters in the novel.
The father, or ‘Daddy’, as the young narrator calls him, is depicted as huge oak-like man, a man of few words who believes in his body to protect his family and earns his money through bare knuckle fighting. One of our readers in Münster said he reminded her of a Green Man, in his relationship to nature, understanding the nature of the woodlands and although gathering food in the landscape but always trying to do this without cruelty. There were those who admired him, with the family being harmonious and very close and those who found him a very uncomfortable figure. One reader was very strongly reminded of their own father, an unemotional figure, and could not empathise with this character at all.
We see the whole story through the eyes of Daniel, an adolescent boy, whose sensitivity and intelligence are conveyed through the use of details that he observes. One reader called Daniel a ‘serene counterpoint’ to his father, which we felt was a wonderful observation.
We discussed how both children seem to feel trapped in their bodies – that the other males that Daniel encounters in his marginal existence are hyper masculine and cannot understand his gentleness and sexuality – while his sister Cathy is in character like her father - but as an adolescent girl is consistently underestimated and patronised by people outside her family unit. Until, that is, the end of the novel.
In relation to this, we had a very animated discussion about the anger that Cathy carries within her and (spoiler alert) how at the end of the book, which takes a mystical turn, she takes revenge on all the men that have conspired to kill her father, like an avenging goddess. Whether as a reader we liked the novel or not, we certainly had some lively discussions about Yorkshire, the Yorkshire accent and the links to history and fairytale in the novel and the local landscape!