‘We all grow into our coffins’

 

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Fiona Mozley’s debut novel Elmet was controversially shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize above a host of more established names. Having read 9 of the 13 longlisted novels, I think it thoroughly deserved its place on the shortlist, although I’m not surprised that it wasn’t selected as the overall winner (simply because George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is just so good). Daniel, who narrates the novel, and his sister, Cathy – a name which deliberately recalls Wuthering Heights – have had a simple if unusual childhood. Under the watchful eye of their Daddy, they’ve grown up in a house in the middle of a Yorkshire forest, learning to fend for themselves by making furniture, catching game with handmade bows and arrows, and growing their own vegetables. Daddy is an ex-boxer, a once-famous man on the underground fighting circuit, now retired after the disappearance of his wife. However, Daddy’s strength of mind and body is still respected in the local community, and when he becomes involved in a local dispute about rent and wages, Daniel and Cathy’s peaceful existence is threatened.

Elmet, despite having little obvious plot for its first two-thirds, is a mesmerising read which becomes difficult to put down once you race into its final chapters. Much has been written about Mozley’s eye for landscape, but it was the characterisation that gripped me. Daniel, our narrator, is perhaps the least interesting of the trio who occupy the heart of the novel. A ‘girly’ boy who only very slowly realises that boys aren’t meant to have long hair or wear shirts that show off their midriffs, his struggles with masculinity are fundamentally blunted by the protection from the hostile world offered by Daddy and by ‘Daddy’s friend’, Vivian, who offers him scrappy education and a cozy home to retreat to for a few hours. What was interesting to me about Daniel wasn’t his confusion about gender – which I didn’t find especially original, as it’s been handled more interestingly in novels like Sara Taylor’s The Lauras – but the way in which his ultra-masculine Daddy seemingly accepts his feminine son unquestioningly. It would have been so easy to make this into yet another novel where a violent father tries to force a son into his own ideas of manhood. Instead, Mozley sets up a much more interesting scenario, creating a Daddy who, like Daniel, we passionately want to believe in – even if, by the end of the novel, we’re questioning whether we still can.

Cathy, like Daddy, is an absolute triumph of a character. Again, she could easily have slipped into the cliche of a wild tomboy girl, but she’s too firmly embedded in her own individuality. The vivid monologues that Mozley writes for a number of her characters are one of the most memorable aspects of Elmet, and Cathy gets all the best lines. She’s viciously angry about womanhood. After meeting Vivian, she tells Daniel, in prose that distantly recalls the prose-poetry of Eimear MacBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing:

‘Hers is the most horrible body I’ve ever seen… It’s her hips. She’s not even fat. There’s no extra weight on her, but her hip bones are so large and wide that she can’t move without considering them… God, it’s disgusting. Can you imagine running with hips like that?… Muscles on your thighs being twisted as you’re trying to run away and your knees trying to support those hips and your running thighs while trying to keep them in line with your feet. All of you trying to go forwards and bloody bones are holding you back. Jesus fucking Christ, I’d rather die.’

Cathy’s concern with being able to run away becomes more and more obvious when we find out about the sexualised assaults she’s already experienced, and the fear she feels when she hears about other women being raped and murdered. However, it’s also an account of the pain of female puberty under patriarchy that is rarely heard in fiction; the sense that you are becoming something that you so passionately don’t want to be, one of the ‘women’ who are assaulted and judged, oppressed and shamed. As Cathy says late in the novel:

‘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… We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine.’

I received a free copy of Elmet from the publisher for review.

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5 thoughts on “‘We all grow into our coffins’

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