A not-always-gentle giant and his two children live peacefully in the woods, but the push and pull of old forces will eventually find them, and the results will be explosive.
Part fairy tale, part coming-of-age story, part revenge tragedy with literary connections, Mozley’s first novel is a shape-shifting, lyrical, but dark parable of life off the grid in modern Britain. Its narrator is 13-year-old Daniel, the tall, sensitive son of John Smythe, a man mountain who makes his living as a bare-knuckle fighter. Daniel, his lovely, fearless older sister, Cathy, and their father live in a house John built in a copse, on land that once belonged to the children’s mother. They are self-sufficient, fed by game they hunt, seated on furniture they built. It’s an idyllic if elemental life, lived largely outside society, until landowner Price, who once employed John as a debt collector, arrives to apply some pressure. Soon John is helping lead an insurrection of underpaid farm laborers and oppressed tenants against Price’s clique of farmers and power brokers. The deal that will resolve this confrontation requires John to fight a brutal match, but the violence doesn’t end there. Mozley’s title refers to a Ted Hughes poetry sequence and a West Yorkshire setting with deep historical roots. Her ruined Eden of a landscape is evoked with beauty and empathy: “The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up through the undergrowth and back into our lives.” Ecological messages, class and gender conflict, and England’s long history of struggle—all are mingled with Daniel’s sexual awakening and a surreal, or superhuman, or quasi-spiritual, gothic and gory final reckoning.
Mozley’s instantaneous success—this debut landed straight on the 2017 Man Booker Prize shortlist—is a response to the stylish intensity of her work, which boldly winds multiple genres into a rich spinning top of a tale.