Mozley’s writing is so perfect in its tone and depth that it’s hard to believe that this is her first novel. It is literally breath-taking – I found myself holding my breath as I read the concluding chapters – and rich in its details. The novel’s epigraph, taken from Ted Hughes’ Remains of Elmet, is fitting not just because of the idea of Elmet as a ‘badlands’, a ‘sanctuary for refugees from the law’, but because Mozley’s writing is just as beautifully poetic as Hughes’ when she invokes her protagonist’s love of the Northern landscape and wildlife around him.
Her story is narrated by Daniel, a boy who has lived with his sister and father on the margins of society in a house built by hand. Daniel’s father, John, understands the land they live on, and he and his children carve out a rich existence in the woods, relying on hunting, foraging and favours returned for John’s help for local villagers. John is a strong man, a giant in his son’s eyes, who has used his strength to find work and make money from bare-knuckle fights. Now he wishes to be his own man, wishes to remove himself and his children from the reach of those who seek to make money from the backs of others. He is part of an ancient way of living. In this sense, he reminded me of Jez Butterworth’s Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jerusalem, but this Green Man faces a much darker, more fully-realised opposition. Once John becomes involved in a struggle to challenge the power of the still-feudal landowners, led by the deeply unpleasant Mr Price, we are all too aware that his family’s home and safety are precarious.
Cathy, Daniel’s sister, is a deeply compelling character from the outset. We know on the first page that she is going to be at the heart of events, and her sense, and fear, of her burgeoning womanhood is part of what makes this taut novel so gripping. She remains something of an enigma to Daniel but the bond between the three main characters is clear and heart-wrenching. She will prove to be very much her father’s daughter.
It may well be up against some literary heavy-weights for the Man Booker Prize, but this novel, like the narrator’s Daddy, is a very strong contender and deserves all possible plaudits. It is one of the best novels I have ever read.