Algonquin Books, 2017
One of the perks of Amazon Prime is a free pre-release e-book every month and, although my selection of Elmet was a rather hasty one while waiting to board a flight and was less on its own merits but more on the basis of the other selections that month looking less interesting, it was a good pick. I began reading on the flight with the intent to just take in a few chapters and then go to sleep, but I was drawn into the world of the story and couldn’t stop, even going so far as to keep reading while having dinner at my layover.
It is written in a rather interesting style on two fronts. The first is the language of the characters is consistent and precisely handled to a degree that the slight twists and turns of localized vocabulary and inflection come through, creating a stylistic nicety where conversations flow naturally without the need for labels to identify who said what and how which plagues most dialogues. The second is that it’s a reversal of the flashback novel; instead of describing the present with flashbacks to the past, it is set in the past as present with flashback style foreshadows. The effect of these together with an intriguing storyline yields a combination that grabs hold and engages the reader in an uncommonly effective way.
The story itself is a bit of a puzzle to classify. Is it a coming of age book, a mystery, a thriller, a documentary? No, but yes. We began by encountering a person running away from something, then go back (or forward?) to a pastoral scene of a father, a son, and a daughter building an off-the-grid existence for themselves in the woods. Surrounded on all sides by “modern” England, they hunt and trap, barter and make, and generally exist outside the norm of modern society. The children’s school is their land and activities, their moral guide their father, who, as we learn soon enough, makes enough to get by on by working in the shadows of the “official world”.
A giant of a man with a formidable reputation, he is prone to occasionally disappear for a day or two; sometimes to earn his cash by no-rules prize fighting in an arena lit by car lights in the pre-dawn darkness where massive bets flow between the word of mouth assembled spectators and organizers, sometimes to make things right for friends who have been wronged. Soon enough, however, he himself is provoked. Officially he and his children are squatting on land owned by a ruthless landlord for whom, we eventually discover, he was once employed as a rent-raising thug. The landlord makes a thinly veiled threat to tear down their home and evict them from his land, and the tension grows. Both parties desire to be rid of the other, and the situation grows to an unbearable level which forces them onto a path which could either save or destroy them.
Throughout the telling are the italicized comments from the other time, telling a story very different than that in normal print. The story ends as it begins – italics on the page, and a sense of not quite knowing what is going to happen next.