Violence and freedom in the Yorkshire countryside: Elmet by Fiona Mozley
Elmet is an unusual and captivating novel about family and place and the boundaries of society. Daniel is trying to get north, having left the home in the woods he lived in with his Daddy and sister Cathy. Once, Daniel and Cathy went to school and lived with their Granny, but then they left for the woods, free to be their own people. Their sanctuary has turned hostile, with the house built for them by their Daddy’s own hands under threat from local landowners.
Mozley’s novel is embedded in the Yorkshire countryside, a place that is Daniel and his family’s home, sustenance, and friend. The descriptions of it are raw and breathing, presenting the land as something not romanticised or boring, but a place of hard life and toughly-fought reward. The majority of the characters are poor and often transient or avoiding the system, and the landscape is shown as a place that can offer if not neutral then less established ground. Though it is a novel about family and countryside, it is also highly political in a way and steeped in class issues, with unscrupulous landowners ripping off ordinary people, and it shows one family’s attempt to live outside the usual political and social system.
Elmet is a raw and exciting book that should be read even by those who don’t think they like novels set in the countryside. It is also an important reminder that books set in the England beyond London need to be written, ones that show rural issues whilst telling stories of varied characters and lives.
Opening a door on the global refugee crisis: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Exit West is a novel about migration, love, and borders, told through a world in which black doors have started appearing that take people to random cities. Nadia and Saeed meet in evening classes and slowly they get closer, but their city is unsafe, with bombs, militants, and executions. Soon they find themselves faced with the question: do they use one of these doors and end up who knows where, but hopefully somewhere better?
Hamid writes in a distinctive prose style that captures the pace of the novel as the characters move through a year, negotiating their own relationship as they search for where to stay. Though the book has an extensive backdrop of how the black doors and the migrating people affect the world and the very concept of a nation, the real focus is Nadia and Saeed and how their relationship changes. Nadia in particular is a gripping and sometimes enigmatic character with a strong sense of independence. Hamid uses the two characters to draw parallels and show differences in their viewpoints whilst also telling a more ambivalent kind of love story.
Exit West has an obvious relevance to the modern day and the conceit of the black doors and the difficulty of policing a world in which people can easily move between countries makes for an interesting premise. Maybe its messages about borders and humanity are a little obvious, but the charming and emotive style definitely compensates for this in a novel that is about finding your place in the world and working out who else might be there.
A troubled village over thirteen years: Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
Reservoir 13 is a surprising novel which charts the rhythms of life in a distinctive prose style, letting seasons rise and fall and people’s lives ebb and flow through the pages of the book. A teenage girl goes missing whilst on holiday in a hilly village in England and the whole area is called in to help look for her. However, the searching is not fruitful, and meanwhile the villagers’ lives must go on, their personal dramas, crops, hopes, and dreams. Thirteen years pass, with the memory of the missing girl still lingering over the village.
The style of the novel takes a moment to settle into, with the narrative voice quickly moving between villagers and short sections denoting chunks of time. Once settled in, though, it finds a rhythm that gets across the idea of everyday life going on in this place where something terrible happened, a kind of relentless moving forward at a mundane pace. The characters, like a real community, vary a lot and many stay fairly mysterious throughout, but there are a great number of small details in their lives picked up by the narrative as part of the tapestry of the village. What is perhaps most notable is the way in which, like in real life, people can disappear entirely from the story when they move away, or only return for brief visits, showing great change in comparison to the more constant progression of those who stay in the village.
Despite the missing girl concept, what McGregor has most memorably done is find a style that captures a community changing over thirteen years, whilst being something interesting to read. Reservoir 13 is an understated book in many ways, with drama often played out in a passing way and moved on from as it would in real life, but also a very literary novel in an unusual style without dialogue.
This week the Man Booker Prize longlist was published, ahead of the shortlist announcement in September and the actual winner being revealed in October. The prize, awarded to literary fiction written in English, tends to make a big name of its winner, at least for a while, and this year’s longlist is full of books you might have seen on a bookshop table, looking shiny and new (or brown and new in the case of Ali Smith’s Autumn).
Whilst you can read the longlist here, I’m going to write some mini reviews of the five books from the list I’ve already read, with links to longer reviews where they exist. Expect a few reviews of others in the coming weeks (any help sourcing copies is appreciated!).
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry – A moving story of love, family, and living outside of society during the American Civil War, which can be horrific at times, but also shows how two men loved one another despite these conditions. Searing descriptive writing and worth trying even if the setting doesn’t sound appealing (as it didn’t to me).
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack – The single sentence novel that is actually split up using line breaks and feels poetic in its execution, as well as being a kind of microcosm of life held within this sentence. Far more readable that that description may sound. (full review)
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy – Roy’s highly anticipated book weaves together the stories of different characters across the Indian subcontinent, such as the life of a transgender woman who finds community in different ways and how fighting and spying can come together through one woman who is loved by many. (full review)
Autumn by Ali Smith – I hate to call this her ‘Brexit’ novel, but in some ways it is, a book about divisions and modern British society in the mundane, which is also about finding your place and trying to follow other people’s stories, written in her characteristically witty style. And yes, she is meant to be writing more for the other seasons.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith – The lives of two girls who dream of dancing, though only one of them can dance. The characters form the core of the novel, which feels distinctly Zadie Smith (though I still prefer N-W). (full review)
Solar Bones is a distinctive novel that tells the highs and lows of a man’s life through his immediate thoughts and memories. Marcus Conway is an engineer with a wife and two grown up children, with his thoughts clouded with current work projects and interfering projects, his wife’s sudden illness from a tainted water supply, and the lives of his children, one a local artist trying out a new medium and the other across the globe in Australia. The novel follows him musing over all of these and more, considering the structures of civil features, marriage, and stable life in one single sentence.
McCormack’s stylistic touches—a single sentence novel, broken up by commas and line breaks—makes the book feel strangely natural, giving Marcus’ thoughts a flowing quality that might be expected from stream of consciousness writing, but also some of the feel of poetry. The detail, especially depictions of specific moments like when his wife is very ill, is vivid and real, with the ability to make the reader feel a little queasy, for example. The nature of the novel means it is focused upon the character, his thoughts, and his life rather than a particular main narrative, though the book does have a decisive ending.
Solar Bones is far more readable than the ‘single sentence novel’ selling point makes it sound, but also it is this selling point that gives it a distinctive style, a return to the modernist stream of consciousness and a way of making prose and poetry less separate. It makes for a tender look at a life, unmissable for literary fiction fans.