Fiona Mozley


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Elmet Summary

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British author Fiona Mozley’s novel Elmet (2017) centers on the recollections of Daniel Smythe, who chronicles his experiences growing up in the rural, wooded Yorkshire village of Elmet and the chain of events that led to his family’s destruction. Elmet was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.

The novel opens as Daniel searches along the train tracks for his sister, Cathy, who has disappeared. As he does so, Daniel fully understands that he may never find Cathy…and, perhaps, that is just as she wants it to be.

Daniel remembers growing up with Cathy in Elmet, under the eye of their father, John “Daddy” Smythe. As a girl, Cathy is something of a tomboy. When she tries to join the boys’ football games, they bully her. During one of these encounters, Daniel comes to her aid, and the other boys hold him back while another fondles Cathy’s breast. Daniel and Cathy report the incident to the school, but the school insists the situation is all Cathy’s fault. This event, combined with the tragic death of Daniel and Cathy’s Granny Morley, compels Daddy to move the family into the deep woodland outside of Elmet.

They live in a house they build themselves. It is a hardscrabble, back-to-the-land existence, but one that Daniel and Cathy cherish and view as nothing short of idyllic. They attend an informal school taught by Daddy’s friend Vivien. Meanwhile, their mother is never present, and Daddy is frequently coming and going according to his own, somewhat haphazard schedule; Daddy is also a champion boxer and has competed in countless illegal boxing matches.

One day, Mr. Price visits the family and says he will evict them from their beloved home if Daddy does not come back to work for him. Mr. Price is a corrupt, wealthy landowner who owns most of the village. Daddy once worked for him as a sort of enforcer and thug, beating up people who didn’t pay Mr. Price as they said they would.

Daddy refuses to work for Mr. Price. He explains that no man—not even rich and powerful ones like Mr. Price—can claim ownership of a living, breathing creature like the land. Driven by this principle, Daddy sets out to organize the villagers to fight back against landlords who bully their tenants. With the assistance of villagers Peter, Ewart, and Martha, Daddy’s unionizing efforts are successful. They launch a renter’s strike, in which the village’s workers refuse to pay rent until given basic rights and paid a living wage. Despite the early successes, however, the landlords fight back, in the form of hired thugs and a replacing of the village workers.

The tension between Daddy and Mr. Price continues, until one day, Mr. Price offers a deal. If Daddy fights for him in a boxing match against a fighter known as the Bear, and Daddy wins, Mr. Price will give Daddy the deed to land the Smythes live on and will meet the strikers’ terms.

Daddy agrees. He gets into the ring against the Bear and soundly defeats him. Nevertheless, just as Daddy verges on victory for himself and the strikers, Mr. Price’s son, Charlie, turns up dead. His body is found in the woods surrounding the building where the boxing match was held. Mr. Price thinks Daddy killed Charlie. Price vows to destroy him and all he holds dear.

Under duress, Cathy confesses that she killed Charlie, though her words are ignored. No one thinks a girl could have committed such a gruesome act. Nevertheless, she speaks the truth. For some time, Charlie and his brother Tom had been assaulting Cathy as she walked through the woods to Vivien’s school. She sees murdering Charlie as the only logical way to get the assaults to stop.

Then, Mr. Price’s henchmen torture the Smythes at their little house in the woods. With Daddy and Daniel bound and bloody, Mr. Price orders his men to rape Cathy. They drag her into the other room, but she returns sometime later, having killed her attacker before he could rape her. In her arms, she holds a shotgun, a bucket of oil, and a torch. When Mr. Price and his men taunt her, telling her she doesn’t know how to use a gun, she shoots them all before going outside, scattering the oil, and setting fire to the house. Daniel manages to flee just in time, and Vivien later finds him unconscious in the forest. She tells him that she thinks she saw Cathy near the train tracks. Daniel runs to find her, but she is gone. Daniel moves to the city yet continues his search for Cathy. He learns how to live with the uncertainty of her whereabouts—and if anyone will ever find her.