by Fiona Mozley
This was a Christmas present from my sister, who often despairs at my bad reading habits and tries to make sure I read a good book at least every now and then. This one certainly fits her requirements.
Told from the perspective of 14-year-old Daniel, the story is about a family on the fringe of society: John, a giant of a man and gentle father who makes his living mostly from illegal fights, moves with his children Daniel and Cathy to a small copse where he builds them a house with his own hands.
For one year, the three of them live there almost unbothered by human society, entirely satisfied with their own company, living off what their vegetable patch and chicken coop yield, hunting with bow and arrow for small animals in the copse and picking berries in the hedgerows.
Every now and then, Daniel tells the reader of their life before they moved to the copse. The children went to school (never really fitting in) and were cared for by their Grandma, with their father often being away, sometimes for days or weeks on end.
It takes until chapter 8 before the reader learns anything about their mother. Daniel never really knew what was the matter with her, and describes things from his perspective as a child, but she was never around for long before she disappeared again until one day a phone call informs them that she won't be coming back.
The copse and the house are not officially owned by the family, and it is only a question of time until the landowner turns up and suggests a way to settle things between them.
The drama unfolds slowly, but the reader can see how it all leads to an inevitably terrible end. When that terrible end is finally there in the last chapter, it makes for hard reading - at least it did for me. Things turn brutal, but are still told in Daniel's style; he is matter-of-fact with an eye for poetic detail even in the most horrible scene. The final outcome is not made entirely clear; the reader doesn't know for sure whether Daniel is the lone surviving member of his family or not.
The setting of the book is rural Yorkshire, with farming and former mining villages dotting the countryside around the copse. I loved the descriptions of the woods and fields, and of the self-contained daily life of the unusual family. Like I said, the last chapter was tough, but not surprising, so I was mentally prepared for it.
Definitely a book I recommend; my sister has not yet read it, and I hope she will enjoy it, too. In parts, it reminded me of Claire Fuller's "Our Endless Numbered Days", which I read last year; you can find my review here. Both books centre around characters who live apart from "the rest of us", so to speak; either by choice or because they were made to. Both books have a young person as their narrator, and there is death and tragedy in them as well; they are both written in a language that is unpretentious and capturing.
"Elmet" is Fiona Mozley's first novel. Her home page is here; it contains a mini bio. Click here for a more thorough review I found on the Guardian's website.