The year’s biggest literary prize, the Man Booker award, is announced on Wednesday morning, October 18 (NZ time). All week this week we review the six shortlisted titles. Today: Linda Burgess reviews Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, and History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund.
At 29, Fiona Mozley is the youngest writer on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. She’s there with her first novel, Elmet. I started reading it with trepidation, with the fear that it was going to be…lyrical. Then it settled in to a story that unfolded in the crispest, clearest, most evocative sentences you could hope for. In my hands I held a book with a beautiful cover. An original, unsettling, risk-taking, freakish book.
The biggest risk Mozley takes is to choose an unreliable narrator who is not the centre of the story. It’s difficult to say who is the centre. It’s equally difficult to work out what is the actual story. The reader is just aware of a simmering, potent tension. We know something bad is about to happen because the novel opens in the now, and it’s made very clear that we’re in the aftermath of something shattering. Then we’re taken back to the recent past.
Nothing about the novel is obvious, but initially at least the writing is strong enough for that to be an advantage. When is it exactly set? It feels medieval (Mozley is currently studying for a PhD is medieval history) or even dystopian futuristic, but it isn’t. If not the present day, it’s the recent past. It has hints of Thatcherism; it refers to disempowered working-class people who no longer have unions to fight for them. It’s a combination of Gothicville and modern-day feudalism, when those with money buy houses once owned by the state and rent them back at inflated prices to those who can afford nothing, really. Although we could be in New Zealand we are in fact in Yorkshire, and not in Escape to the Country territory, but in feral wilderness. The rich go to snotty public schools and become entitled arrogant shits, and the poor only survive if they live by their wild wits.
There are three characters central to the story: Cathy (possibly referencing the one who smashed windows yelling ‘I am Heathcliff’), her brother Daniel (the narrator) and their father who we generally know as Daddy. Daddy is a physical colossus who fights for money and who has moved his two unusual children to land which possibly used to be theirs, on which they squat. For much of the earlier part of the book – by far the most successful part – we don’t really learn many of the reasons for their being there. Daniel, 15, in charge of telling the story, doesn’t actually know. There’s that underlying darkness. There’s a distant disappeared mother; there’s the hint that at some stage she might have been a little too friendly with the bad lot landlord. There’s a woman who’s a friend of Daddy, who doesn’t make friends lightly. She’s reassuringly normal. There are locals, dispossessed of their properties by the evil landlord. There are his two posh sons. They’re all peripheral but the growing sense of unease is not. It’s Cathy’s story, and all is not right in her world. Seen through her brother’s eyes, Cathy is an intriguing combination of vulnerable and tough. But I never felt we got to know her. We didn’t get to know Daddy, either, and even though Daniel is telling the story, he remains an enigma.
And this is the novel’s problem. About half way through – up to which point I’d been thoroughly engrossed, and totally accepting of my confusion – I stopped believing. It was because the novel had reached the point where we needed some explanation, and our narrator wasn’t quite up to giving it to us. Instead, Mozley reverted to that terrible device, the long explanatory one-sided conversation. Daniel becomes the listener. I can never believe in characters who speak in essay-length paragraphs. This novel will be deservedly adored by some readers but I don’t think it should win literature’s biggest prize. And I’m just hoping it isn’t made into a movie by Vincent Ward or Jane Campion.
The full Man Booker shortlist:
4321 by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber) – read our review here
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (JM Originals, John Murray)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Bloomsbury) – read our reviews here and here
Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
The Americans are allowed to enter the Man Booker now, which seems a bit unfair given they already have the Pulitzer. Emily Fridlund is one of the Americans shortlisted and she comes swathed in degrees in creative writing. History of Wolves is her first novel and my immediate response was to intensely dislike its title. It’s so very last decade, when titles all appeared to come from a book called 100 Cosy Titles. I softened towards it in the opening pages of the novel when it’s explained by the 15-year-old narrator (hmmm…a recurring stylistic motif in this year’s shortlist…the naïve narrator…) that this was the title of her school project. It’s an excuse, but not a good one.
History of Wolves is a more troubling novel than Elmet, though less original and taking fewer risks. The novels have more in common than just their teenage narrators – or rather, their narrators who move back from adulthood to recall, and speak in the voice of, their teenage selves. Both show isolated young, living in rural backblocks with eccentric parents. Linda, the protagonist, lives with people who may not even be her parents – they’re the sole remnants of a commune that broke up a decade or so before. She seems to be the recipient of benign neglect. Linda’s connection with other children pretty much ended as a pre-schooler. Now, a high school teenager, she shows immediately that she’s the outsider. She’s called a Commie, and she’s not pretty, not like poor doomed Lily who has caught the eye of the teacher who (probably kindly) involved Linda in the project about wolves.
They’re also both doom-laden novels. From the first page of History of Wolves we know 4-year-old Paul, to whom Linda is attached rather reluctantly as a babysitter, is going to die. We don’t know how, but we know there’s a trial involved. It’s in the description of the relationship between Linda and Paul that Fridlund’s writing glows. She has a terrific eye for small detail, and while Mozley’s similarly sharp eye is far more successful at describing how things look than their significance, Fridlund exquisitely captures the early relationship of these two characters – the irritated yet touched, over-protective yet laissez-faire attitude of a teenage girl towards a small person of whom she is grudgingly in charge.
Paul is by far the most appealing character in the book. Fridlund is less successful with grownups: Paul’s Christian Science parents (ah! So that’s why they ignore that he’s ill) remain tantalisingly superficial. Mr Grierson, the possibly paedophile teacher, is drawn with limited success; Linda’s own parents make no impression at all until well into the book when we get a glimpse of Linda’s mother, compulsively baptising Linda. Yes, both books take us into rural freakville where people live lives where religion and nature become inextricably fused. Their eccentricities are not rendered even slightly affectionately.
There are two main stories in History of Wolves, and even though they are thematically linked it is one too many. Running alongside the quasi-mystery surrounding the death of Paul and its aftermath, the story of Lily, Mr Grierson and Linda herself feels as if it is struggling to find its relevance. With just two pages to go, in what reads like a eureka moment for the novelist, we’re chucked a final link in the plot. So has the whole novel been an exploration of jealousy? Of revenge? Of sordid love? Why didn’t she say so before?
I was left feeling in both cases, nice writing, indeed excellent writing, shame about the flaws. Mozley’s is probably the smarter, being somehow more original. But just stay out of teenagers’ heads, I thought. I also felt as if I’d been dragged through some bleak endless swamp at twilight on a wet winter’s day. If these two clever, awful novels are the best in the world, then I find it a bit damn depressing. Excuse me – I’m off to cheer myself up with M.F.K. Fisher.
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (Hodder & Stouhgton, $35) and History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Hachette, $33) are available at Unity Books.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.