“Sometimes it was as if Daddy was torn apart by our questions. He wanted to be an honest man who shared what he knew with his children, imparting details of his current and former lives, knowing that if any details were too much for us that was the very reason for imparting them. Everything he did now was to toughen us up against something unseen. He wanted to strengthen us against the dark things in the world. The more we knew of it, the better we would be prepared. And yet there was nothing of the world in our lives, only stories of it. We had been taken out of our school and our hometown to live with Daddy in a small copse. We had no friends and hardly any neighbors. We obtained a form of education from a woman who dropped books lazily into our laps from a library she had developed to suit her tastes and her own way of thinking.”
In a small, rural village full of struggling and underemployed families, a mountain of a man is raising his teenage children, Daniel and Cathy. For Daddy, Cathy, and Daniel, the world outside is better than the outside world. Together they scavenge and hunt, build and fight, an isolated, fiercely independent, deeply enmeshed team of quiet, disquieted souls. Loyalty is their lifeblood, and they are willing to follow each other to the ends of the earth. Daniel, in particular, looks to both Cathy and Daddy for constant guidance.
“Big sister, little brother. I wanted her to always lead the way, tell me what was what, carry me home.”
To him, and in some sense to the reader, Daddy and Cathy are mythical, magical, infallible beings. When it comes to pass that Cathy may have been involved in a violent crime, Daniel’s response is deceptively simple.
“‘You’re my sister and I love you. I have believed everything you’ve ever said and I will believe everything you ever will say. And if you did it there was a reason, even if that reason was just that you wanted to. It’s nowt to me. You’re my sister.'”
As for their father, well, Daddy is a bear of a man.
“For all his brutality, Daddy liked other people. He liked people with as much affection as a huntsman had for his prey, deeply and earnestly but with cold regard. He had few friends and saw them scarcely but the people whose worth he felt were held like rare souvenirs. He took care of those people.”
Daddy has clearly instilled similar values in his children. They trust him fully, follow his lead, and truly connect with no one else.
“We could say nothing after he mentioned our mother. We almost never spoke of her and his mentioning her was so rare that we did not now whether to take it as an invitation or as a warning. I could not detect either mode in his tone nor read his expression. He walked on impassively, while I looked up at him then down again at the path in front of us then up again at him, like our eager dogs who trotted at our feet and turned their faces up to their masters on every other step. The dogs looked at me and Cathy. We looked at Daddy.”
Cathy, too, is impossibly strong and strong-willed. This quiet girl sees not only the mess of the outside world, but the dangers and horrors of rampant misogyny. She is full of anger, fear, strength, and desperation.
“‘[I]t is my life and my body and I can’t stand the thought of going out into the world and being terrified by it all, all o’ the time. Because I am, Danny, I am. And I don’t want to be. I don’t want to feel afraid. All I kept thinking about was Jessica Harman, thrown into that canal, and all those other women on the TV, in newspapers, found naked, covered in mud, covered in blood, blue, twisted, found in the woods, found in ditches, never found. Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about them. Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about how I’m turning into one of them. I’m older now and soon my body will be like theirs. I dindt want to end up in a ditch. I dindt want that any more than you want to be a fighting man like Daddy, or a labouring man, out sorting potatoes on a farm all day until your limbs get caught and broken and chopped in the dirty machinery, dirty iron and dirty steel. We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine.'”
My greatest regret for this otherwise heroic debut was the sometimes furtive handling of Daniel. Mozley drops in small tidbits and anecdotes about Daniel’s gender identity that don’t feel fully developed. It felt off-putting and almost gossipy to allude briefly to Daniel’s sense of gender in a sentence or two, only to move abruptly away. In my opinion, this part of the story either needed further development or needed to be omitted. Treated as an undercurrent, this part of the ‘back story’ feels irrelevant, and it is unclear what Mozley intended to accomplish.
When all is said and done, this is a small criticism to what is nonetheless a remarkable and crisp work of art. Fiona Mozley’s debut novel “Elmet” is haunting in every sense of the word. It’s quiet force keeps a firm grip on your attention. It is full of darkness, struggle, and even horrors. It may make you flinch and will certainly quicken your pulse, a thriller at pastoral paces.