I seldom follow closely the longlisted or even shortlisted books for any of the International Literary Prizes. I might pick up a winner if it sounds interesting to me anyway, or I might pick up the one that other people think should have won (or been shortlisted). However, there is one advantage with shortlisted titles (at least for the UK) – they raise the profile of the author and usually make it to the shelves of my local library.
That is where I found Fiona Mozley’s Elmet and I can see I’m only the fourth person to borrow it, with the other three all taking it out around the time of the Man Booker Prize 2017 announcement. This is a shame, because it is a beautifully written book, which deserves a wider readership. But it will never be popular – the subject is too grim, the pace is too slow. Above all, it contradicts the established canon of British nature writing as a nostalgic retreat into a rural fairyland. Nature as fond mother cradling and redeeming the sinners (sorry, Amy Liptrot) or close observation of natural phenomenon as if to document its universal appeal (Melissa Harrison, whose work I enjoy a lot). Mozley writes sensitively about the tranquility and beauty of the countryside, but this is a landscape under siege from the brutality of developers, large-scale farmers, supermarkets and progress more generally.
This is unvarnished countryside, with rough and unlikable people being shaped by it. Daniel, his sister Cathy and their father are outsiders and rather disturbingly eccentric, to be perfectly frank. They do not automatically become good people because they co-exist harmoniously with nature. This is the view of the countryside that my peasant family would recognise: a hard, unforgiving life. Nature is not all nice and pretty-pretty, something to be admired and set aside when we’ve had enough of it. Land has been (and still is) the thing most fought over, as countless wars testify.
Let me share two contrasting passages with you, both from the beginning of the book, but at different moments of time. Before and after the rape of the land, if you will:
We arrived in summer when the landscape was in full bloom and the days were long and hot and the light was soft. I roamed shirtless and sweated cleanly and enjoyed the hug of the thick air. In those months I picked up freckles on my bony shoulders and the sun set slowly and the evenings were pewter before they were black, before the mornings seeped through again. Rabbits gambolled in the fields and when we were lucky, when the wind was still and a veil settled on the hills, we saw a hare.
The long, run-on sentences and lack of punctuation mimic the unity of human and nature, of the family who has arrived in these places, as well as the lazy, hazy summer days. Contrast that with:
I still smell embers. The charred outline of a sinuous wreck. I hear those voices again: the men, and the girl. The rage. The fear. The resolve. Then those ruinous vibrations coursing through the wood. And the lick of the flames. The hot, dry spit. The sister with blood on her skin and that land put to waste.
How fragmented, spiky, rough those short, sharp phrases are now! It is the pant of someone enraged, scared and running away. Leaving nothing behind. It reminded me somewhat of Fiona Melrose’s book Midwinter (and not just because the authors share a first name) – the same timeless quality to the prose and the story. The main characters exist on a different, unrushed timescale to the rest of us – the rhythm of nature perhaps – until they are forced to submit to our cruel contemporary world.
Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife has recently been shortlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize and is therefore more readily available. When I first heard of it from Naomi Frizby’s blog, it was much harder to get hold of it and I had to order it from abroad. I was fascinated by the (somewhat autobiographical) premise: a well-educated woman who wants to become a writer is trapped in an unhappy and violent marriage with a well-educated but very controlling professor. I suppose I sought out the book for parallels to my own life, although I never experienced physical violence. Yet it is much more than a simple account on a topic which is still somewhat taboo (particularly in India, I would imagine). If it had been just a straightforward memoir of domestic violence, I might have avoided it, as the topic is too painful.
The scenes of violence are certainly difficult to read, but this book is also about trying to emerge as a creator when you feel you are having all creativity thrashed out of you. The narrator is reframing and taking back control of her story after months of feeling powerless, that agency had been taken away from her. And she does so in fun, experimental ways, making lists, bringing in quotes, finding a soundtrack and becoming the director of the film of her life.
And cut! I am the wife playing the role of an actress playing out the role of a dutiful wife watching my husband pretend to be the hero of the everyday. I play the role with flair. The longer I stretch the act of the happily married couple, the more I dodge his anger. It’s not a test of talent alone. My life depends upon it.
It’s not just the acting that I have to consider, though. I’m responsible for the whole, flattened film that has become my life. I think of camera angles. think of how I should preserve the intricacies of the set. I must manage to capture what it means for a once-nomad to be confined to the four walls of a house. I must figure out a way to show on screen how even a small space of confinement begins to grow in the mind of the woman who inhabits it with her sorrows, how the walk from the bedroom to the door of the house becomes a Herculean task, or how the thought of checking on the slow-cooking chicken Chettinad curry when she is busy reading a book becomes an impossible chore.
I’m now curious to see what else both of these authors have written or are going to write. They certainly fill my heart with hope that the future of feminine writing is in good hands.