Elmet, Fiona Mozley’s sparse stunner, contracts where other debut novels might tell too much. Departing from current narrative conventions of dialogue-heavy realism, Elmet strips a mythic, unnerving fable down to its bones. Ex-hitman Daddy has built himself and his teenage children, Danny and Cathy, a home in the Yorkshire woods with his own two hands, where the three live a ruggedly idyllic life before crime and corruption in the shape of landowner Mr. Price threaten their survival.
At least, this is the allegory on first glance. Mozley’s medieval history background isn’t lost on her fiction: Elmet references a Ted Hughes poetry cycle on Britain’s last Celtic kingdom, believed to have existed near modern-day York. Daddy’s larger-than-life strength—his career as a renowned boxer in underground fight rings, his knowledge of bow-and-arrow hunting, logging, and woodcarving—cements him as a primitive British hero. Daddy has even killed men while carrying out Mr. Price’s dirty work in the past, yet lives by a kind of warrior’s honor: “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.” By contrast, aptly-named Mr. Price’s overworked and underpaid tenants reveal a form of modern-day feudalism with which Danny’s family must contend.
On one level, Mozley firmly grounds us in mythic territory with Elmet’s initial conflict of land ownership and its distinctly lyrical craft. Mozley’s narrator, Danny, observes his sister, Cathy, with a bow,
loosing her arrows so that she was struck hard, again and again. Her forearm became red raw and so bruised that the grey and yellow blood that settled there almost made a complete bracelet that seeped all the way around, like her skin was stained with gold.
Mozley’s rhythmic and elemental language reminds us that this is not how stories are told anymore. Perhaps this is solace at first: maybe this allows us to read Elmet in the safety of its unreality. Maybe characters like Cathy, who rolls her own cigarettes, disappears into the woods for hours on end, and bloodies the boys who knock her down as a child, don’t really exist. Maybe characters like Cathy—who strangles her rapist to death and douses her kidnappers in an explosion of burning oil—belong in the fictitiously violent worlds of Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Hardy, or Emily Brontë, where extreme evil warrants extreme reckoning. But if Elmet’s strength lies in its mythic construction, its brilliance appears in its subversion of masculine myth narratives with a fable of women’s sexual terror.
Soon Mozley makes clear that Elmet is not only allegorizing the ownership of land, but the ownership of bodies. For Daddy and Mr. Price, bodily ownership is either a matter of philosophical individualism or a means of revenue. To Mr. Price, Daddy is commercial capital, no different than land: “I used to own that man’s muscles, and I owned his mind. I owned his fists and his feet; his eyes and his ears and his teeth.” Daddy voices his archetypal idealism when he says, “my body is my own. It is all I own.” But Mozley distinguishes between the language of ownership used by men and women: Cathy’s body is nothing abstract, but a threat to her survival. When meeting her tutor, Vivian, Cathy tells Danny,
God, it’s disgusting. Can you imagine running with hips like that? Can you imagine trying to run away from someone when you’re being pulled back by your own bones? […] Jesus fucking Christ, I’d rather die.
Where Elmet’s men might see the body as a material representation of something ideological—like masculine individualism or classed power structures—its women know it to be something very realistically at stake. A woman’s hips will slow her down if an attacker is running after her—a woman’s body compromises her safety. That Cathy looks at a woman’s hips and immediately imagines an attacker at all is important: she is thinking in a way we as readers are not. So far we believe in the kind of mythically masculine world we’re in—we believe that Daddy and Danny’s life in the woods is a story about good guys versus bad guys. We root for their cabin, their days spent chopping trees or drinking cider by the fire. But Cathy sees in this world of hitmen, fighters, hunting, and crime a tolerance of violent masculinity which comes at horrific costs for women.
Elmet is crafted in such a way that sexual violence takes place outside of what is narrated: we don’t see it happening and we may not even suspect it happening. It is only around the last 30 or so pages that Cathy confesses she killed Mr. Price’s son, her rapist. It’s almost easier to believe teenage Cathy has strangled a man than it is to think she has been suffering sexual abuse in Elmet’s margins. Cathy is tough and independent: in an early iteration of sexual abuse, a boy from school puts his hands up her shirt as a child, and Cathy beats him and his accomplice until they run back to town. Cathy does not even recognize this moment as sexual:
She was just a girl and there was nothing there but bone and muscle but perhaps he thought this would bother her […] She had no idea that Gregory was acting out a kind of play, taking his cues from things he had either seen or heard […] But she did not know. She had not been told yet.
Instead, she sees only an abuse of power, one she can easily overturn. As Danny remembers, “She chased them down and I knew she would catch them all. Her legs were longer and stronger than theirs in those days.” As a child, Cathy “fought them all and won.”
For a moment we think this will always be how things go: bad guys overpower a girl, tough girl teaches them a lesson. We think even Cathy can benefit from the suspended rules of real life in fiction: in this myth, Cathy the abused girl can fight back. But the fantasy of a triumphant woman in a world where the odds are stacked against her must end there. Even our final vision of Cathy—naked, covered in blood and oil, holding a torch in one hand and a shotgun in the other—appears for a moment like womankind finally getting her reckoning. But this vision, like Cathy herself, vanishes in flames, and we’re left asking—like adult Danny searching for his missing sister—who really comes out on top.
When asked by Danny why she killed her rapist, Cathy poignantly answers, “with the way things were set up between us, he had many chances; I had one.” In this Mozley gives us the key to reading Cathy’s and women’s victories as anomalies in a world where sexual violence, horrifically, usually wins. Cathy’s victory was her one chance; her rape was one of her violent world’s many chances. As she tells Danny,
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 how I’m turning into one of them […] We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine.
Narratively, Mozley has turned Cathy into one of them: covered in blood, covered in mud, never found. By the novel’s end she is less like a vengeful Lilith and more reminiscent of a haunting earlier image of girlhood’s sexual blackening:
a small plastic dolly with blonde curls lying face down in the mud of the front garden […] her pink cotton frock hitched up around her ears […] lying there, untouched, for years while the rain and soil stained her body.
Mozley makes clear that someone like Cathy is the exception, not the rule. Yes, she gets her revenge, but against the ghosts of less fortunate women—“all those other women on the TV, in newspapers, found naked”—her victory is a drop in an ocean. By Elmet’s end, we’ve come to distrust the seemingly idyllic masculine world we’ve been in, as well as our own ease in believing that a story like this is archaic, mythic, unreal. If this is the world of myth, which parts can we distance ourselves from as hyperbole? How realistic is Mozley’s novel trying to be? Elmet offers an unsettling answer in that the fable—sexual violence—is very much real, as real as our believing the narrative to be so outlandish it must only belong in fiction. As horrifying as our discovery of sexual violence is, even more so is our disbelief of it, our willingness to push it into the same mythical distance as the rest of Mozley’s allegory. So, Elmet isn’t trying to be realistic, except when it is.