2017 Man Booker Prize Shortlist #1: Elmet

I’m not sure I’m going to make it through four books before October 17 (I’m not reading 4321 right now because it has 900 pages), but my first one off this year’s shortlist was well worth it. I ordered it from England as it’s not yet available in the US. (It will be on December 5.) The foreword is a quote from Remains of Elmet by the poet Ted Hughes: Elmet was the last independent Celtic kingdom in England and orignally 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. One of the interesting mysteries of this book is that it takes a while, at least it did for me, to know exactly when the story takes place. I definitely knew by the end, but I won’t give it away as ascertaining the time is one of the pleasures (and puzzles) of this book.

Mozley is a very fine writer. She has a good way of writing the West Riding accent, and quickly draws us verbal pictures of the Yorkshire landscape and how people see it and live in it. There are lots of memories of past times and descriptions of the vast changes that have come to every landscape and community. Part of the story is the struggle of one community against a more than difficult landlord. They all come together one day for food and conversation to see what they do as a community. One character, Ewart, says this of the gathering: I don’t know folk around here like I used to. I can’t tell how they feel any more, or how they think. Sometimes I think it’s still there, just resting its eyes. A lot of those here are sons and daughters of men that worked with me up at the pit. So many passed away before their time. They drank too much and smoked too much and ate too much of this meat. We all did. But I do see something here of that old world. People are as poor now as they ever were, and as tired. And bringing people together of an evening is easier than keeping them apart. And by that same token, bringing a community back together is easier than setting people and families at odds. It’s just that’s where all effort’s been this last ten years and more. (p. 171)

This is neither an easy book nor a pleasant one. You kind of know all along how it will turn out. But each page brings hope that it might turn out differently than you expect. I think that kind of hope is what the author is describing in this often dark, but quite profound novel.


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