Fiona Mozley's debut novel Elmet has been shortlisted for the Man Booker PrizeInstagram: johnmurrays

Trains make wonderful writing spaces. On Fiona Mozley's quotidian commute from York to London, watching farmland morph into the dilapidated eyesores of urban decay under an anaemic weekday sunrise, a Man Booker shortlist novel was born. I'll admit I stray slightly from the facts in this romanticised portrait of Elmet's origins. With enviable productivity, Mozley did write her fable of childhood and family allegiance on a train bound for the capital, but the jury's out on the exact details of the view from her window seat. I'm perhaps not far off, if the unadorned Yorkshire landscapes which form such an integral part of this excellent novel are anything to go by.

At its essence, Elmet is a coming of age story set against the smoky woodland canvas of grim up-north gothic. Our narrator is 14-year-old Danny who, along with his feral sister Cathy, has moved to a house in the forest built for them by their Daddy. This isolation in a 'strange, sylvan otherworld' becomes a sanctuary for the curious family. It is a life cut off from law and modern society in favour of chopping wood for campfires, bows and arrows and the humane slaughter of rabbits. In Danny's plaintive words, 'We just want to be left alone.' But the modern world of power, corruption and legal property rights is not so easy to escape. Soon the local landowners begin to close in and, escalated by snatches of Daddy's dark past and Danny's fugitive future, the story becomes a desperate struggle for survival.

Mozley avoids triteness by spiking this fairytale with an arresting, often twisted realism.

This novel possesses atmosphere in abundance. Characters seem to spring directly from their remote surroundings and Mozley combines rural austerity and human violence with a striking, Bronte-esque vitality. Take Danny's father, referred to throughout as Daddy. At once, we see that this intimate moniker is at odds with his hulking physicality: he is 'gargantuan' with a 'cavernous chest' and 'Goliath arms', a prize fighter 'more vicious...than any leviathan of the ocean'. Yet Daddy, compellingly realised, is no doltish brute. There's undeniable nobility in his desire to shelter Danny and Cathy from venal capitalist civilisation, his wish to 'strengthen [them] against the dark things in the world', as Danny puts it.

For me, the book's exploration of class conflict is one of its core strengths. Mozley vividly captures the grit and grime of socio-economic hardship in the plight of the town's downtrodden and underpaid farm labourers, subservient to landowning plutocrats like the slippery Mr Price. A clandestine fireside conspiracy is a standout scene, where the townspeople come together in unified resistance. Moreover, the ancient feudal hierarchy of tenant and landowner in the novel contributes to a sense of timelessness. We are drawn deeply into the wintery stasis of the woods and grow used to Daddy's primal, back-to-basics way of life. References to Land Rovers, supermarkets and lottery winners come as intrusive anachronisms. This is Elmet's other great accomplishment: we are made to feel, as Danny and Cathy do, the encroachment of hostile, intolerant progress.

Of course, there are areas which lack this finesse. The backstory is too often relayed in repetitive exposition, or else left patchy. Casting Danny as the narrator muddies the waters between lucid authorial presence and the account of a fourteen-year-old still learning to express himself. Exquisitely crafted description sits alongside clumsy but, in light of the speaker, more accurate statements such as 'the air was wet with salty water'. I also confess that I find myself impatient when the italicised text signals a shift back to Danny's present. They remind the reader that the bulk of the novel is relayed in flashback, a dramatic device which helps vary pace and texture, but often makes the present-day sequences feel underdeveloped.

Yet these are minor faults, easy to forgive in light of the novel's dazzling evocations of place. A lonely cottage in the forest, two carefree children splashing in rockpools; such passages of prose are written with lyrical artistry, yet Mozley avoids triteness by spiking this fairytale with an arresting, often twisted realism. The cottage later becomes a crime scene. As the story builds to a fallout of heat-rending familial fracture, we are left considering the morality of the novel's old and new worlds, and which we would choose for ourselves. If we are permitted the choice at all, that is: remaining impervious to the progression of society is shown to be futile. 'Millions of men had died dancing in the old style'.


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For the common reader, predicting the Man Booker winner is always a game of guesswork. But whoever takes the prize this year, it's pleasing to see debuts such as Elmet up there alongside the works of familiar, big-name authors. In its poetic imagery, thoughtful consideration of class politics and haunting depiction of rural Yorkshire, this powerful novel more than deserves its place on the shortlist

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