Source: Review copy
Publication: 19th September from Pushkin Children’s Books
It only taykes one person to start a revolushun
Life in Bearmouth is one of hard labour, the sunlit world above the mine a distant memory. Reward will come in the next life with the benevolence of the Mayker. New accepts everything – that is, until the mysterious Devlin arrives. Suddenly, Newt starts to look at Bearmouth with a fresh perspective, questioning the system, and setting in motion a chain of events that could destroy their entire world.
In this powerful and brilliantly original debut novel, friendship creates strength, courage is hard-won and hope is the path to freedom.
Liz Hyders’s Bearmouth is already making massive waves in the world of Y/A literature. The Times said of her book that “Liz Hyder’s young adult debut is like nothing I have read before and feels as though it is the work of a far more mature writer who has letters after their name and awards cluttering their mantelpiece.”
Others have said of Bearmouth: ‘a mighty impressive piece of work… compelling, powerful and utterly unique. The voice of Newt is so original, demonstrating a lyrical dexterity in such a brilliant style’ – Brian Conaghan, winner of the Costa Children’s Book Award
‘A hugely atmospheric read… a page-turner for sure’- John McLay, Artistic Director, Bath Children’s Literature Festival
‘memorable, different and stunning’ – Katy Moran, author
‘clearly destined for greatness… It will stop you in your tracks. It will grip you, bewitch you, haunt you. It’s a brilliant, brilliant book’ – Nicholas Pegg, writer, director, actor
My own review will follow, but I am delighted to have Liz Hyder on the blog today for my 4×4 feature in which she discusses some of the characters in her book and a range of the influences that brought it to fruition.
I started by asking Liz for 4 key characters in your book and why they are important
Newt is the main protagonist of Bearmouth, a fierce, stubborn and yet kind character. Impulsive, clever and still very young, Newt is learning to read and write and so Bearmouth is told first-person through Newt’s distinctive mish-mash of a dialect. When Devlin, an outsider, comes to the mine, Newt is inspired to start questioning the status quo but in an oppressive environment, even the simple act of asking a question can be a dangerous thing…. Newt is pretty fearless at times and is probably the bravest characters I’ve ever invented. I wish I could be more Newt!
Devlin is a bit older than Newt and it’s through him that we see how utterly frightening and alienating the environment of the mine is. Although Bearmouth draws on the research that I did into early Victorian mines, it’s very much a fictional place in which the miners, like the pit ponies in some mines, both live and work underground. Devlin cries during his first days down there and, frankly, you would. Twelve-hour days, six days a week, hard, dangerous and dirty work, all of that is real. Devlin is resilient though, he’s resourceful too but Newt is very wary of him when he arrives. He feels quite unpredictable when he first arrives and that’s unsettling, even threatening for Newt.
Thomas is considerably older. An experienced miner, he’s in charge of the dynamite and of opening up new passages. He’s a wise man who can read and write and so is teaching the younger characters in his dorm how to do the same. He’s incredibly patient with them, particularly with Newt. It’s partly through his influence that Newt begins to grow, the potential within starting to be unleashed. Thomas wants to believe the best in everyone and in the world around him – he is a lovely man and I adore him.
Walsh is sort of the polar opposite to Thomas. He’s a bully with ambitions, a man who will say and do anything if he thinks it will curry favour with those above him. He’s determined and, in some ways, smart but he’s holding a dark secret within him. He’s named in honour of a boy who I was at secondary school with who, for some reason, completely hated me and who once tried to beat me up in the corridor. They only share a name and a face but I like to think of it as sweet revenge!
4 pieces of music that you listened to while writing or which make you think of Bearmouth
Alan Rosevear is a folk-singer with the most extraordinarily rich and distinctive voice. His rendition of Six Jolly Miners, a Derbyshire mining song, is one of my favourite things. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grJ1kr-yUQQ. I listened to him a LOT when I was researching the book and when I was writing it as a mood-setter. I think he’s magnificent.
PJ Harvey is one of my favourite singer/songwriters. Let England Shake, which won her the Mercury Prize, is infused with a sense of history, of conflict and of landscape, all of which are elements present in Bearmouth. I think it’s a beautiful album, haunting and strange.
Rozi Plain is a Bristol based singer-songwriter and makes sort of indie-lo-fi pop. Her music’s always fairly mellow but lots of her tracks have a deep emotional resonance to them. I really like the track Humans, there’s a really strong beat to it and I love the repetition of ‘humans been working’ which is repeated throughout. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAMKhomQFtU
Ezra Furman – I can’t talk about music without mentioning Ezra Furman. I think he’s phenomenal. A shape-shifter, he changes styles with each album much like another one of my favourites, St Vincent. I listen to him a LOT. He’s a brilliant lyricist and one of the best live performers I’ve ever seen. He remains the only act that I’ve moshed to and been moved to tears by within the same gig. My Zero is a good place to start with him – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysPnz5yl_z8 – but his latest album Twelve Nudes is a furiously angry punk masterpiece. This is my current track of choice from it – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DhGcFL0FLI
4 places where you wrote Bearmouth or which remind you of it.
The Llanfair Slate Caverns is where it all started, really. It’s just south of Harlech on the Welsh coast and it’s brilliant. It’s very low-tech which means it’s much more atmospheric than a lot of more ‘showy’ disused mines that are open to visitors. You’re given a hard-hat and a torch and off you go. It’s not particularly deep but a lot of the equipment is just scattered around, slowly rusting away. It’s where the idea of the Mayker came from, the religious figure that is worshipped in Bearmouth. There’s a figure in the rocks at Llanfair that the workers used to doff their caps to as they came and left for work every day.
The Big Pit is Wales’s National Coal Mining Museum and it’s an amazing place. It’s far and above my favourite mine. As with the National Coal Mining Museum, you’re shown around the mine by ex-miners. Every time I go, there’s something else that strikes me. It’s hugely atmospheric, as if the mine just closed yesterday and might reopen tomorrow. I love it down there and I say that as someone who doesn’t like small spaces or being underground or even *whispers* the dark. I should say too, some of the pit ponies in the book are named after those from the Big Pit.
Ironbridge is not far from where I live in Shropshire. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has about ten museums in a relatively small area. It’s the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and it’s a fantastic place to visit. There are old mine shafts, smelting furnaces, the affluent houses of the foundry owners and a Victorian town, Blists Hill, that you can venture around. The Black Country Living Museum is better known since it’s been used for filming Peaky Blinders, but I don’t think it’s a patch on Ironbridge.
The Clee Hills, both Brown Clee and Titterstone Clee, loom over the small market town of Ludlow where I live. Titterstone Clee is pock-marked with mine shafts and huge disused quarries as if a giant has bitten great chunks out of the hill. Both hills have Bronze Age sites and Brown Clee still has an intact and very beautiful hill fort, Nordy Bank, with the ramparts still clearly visible. When I walk around either hill, there’s something comforting about the fact that they have been used by humans for millennia. That timelessness and the exploitation of the land definitely fed into the feel of the book. They’re both also fantastic places to go for a long walk and let the fierce winds blow all the stories around in your head.
4 films that convey the atmosphere you are writing about in Bearmouth
Alien – I know it might seem weird at first, but the claustrophobic nature of Alien is definitely something I was trying to emulate in the book. The tension that hovers in the background throughout and the challenge of creating something utterly suspenseful in a really enclosed space were both elements I wanted to capture in Bearmouth, It’s easy to forget that Alien is forty years old this year, it still feels incredibly fresh.
A Clockwork Orange – the book’s brilliant of course but the film takes that source material and makes it into something else entirely. It’s brutal, violent and is set in a completely realised world of its own. I haven’t watched it for years but there are truly haunting scenes in it that I think are very hard to forget.
I’m cheating as this isn’t film but I loved the TV series The Last Miners about the last working days of Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire. It was a beautifully made insight into the lives of the last miners and how safe modern mines had become when compared to the horrors of the Victorian period. It’s a profoundly moving piece of television. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0845r0t
Haunters of the Deep is a deeply creepy beast made by the now defunct Children’s Film Foundation. I think it was on TV when I was a kid and it gave me nightmares for a while afterwards. I’d entirely forgotten about it until after I’d finished Bearmouth and then I realised that the claustrophobic tunnels in it must have lodged in my head somehow. There’s a helpful ghost of a boy in it who aids the escape of those who get trapped in the mine but to be honest, I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it again. Just thinking about the light flickering at the end of the tunnel when they all know there’s no-one else down the mine makes me feel a bit sick. I’m a wuss I know! I’m terrible with ghost stories!
Thanks so much to Liz for her enlightening answers. This is one you won’t want to miss and it’s a perfect Christmas gift!
Liz Hyder is a writer, creative workshop leader and freelance arts PR Consultant.
She has been part of Writing West Midlands’s Room 204 writer development
programme since 2016. In early 2018, she won The Bridge Award/Moniack
Mhor’s Emerging Writer Award. Bearmouth is her first novel.
A past member of the National Youth Theatre, Liz has a BA in Drama from
the University of Bristol and is on the board of Wales Arts Review. Previously, she’s developed a pilot series with Channel 4 Scotland, collaborated with theE17 Shadow Puppet Theatre for the Cultural Olympiad and been runner-up of the Roy W Dean Writers’ Grant (International Writing Award).
She worked in BBC publicity for six years on everything from EastEnders, Holby and Casualty to Radio 4 and arts TV. Since going freelance, she has been shortlisted for and won various PPC (Publishers’ Publicity Circle) Awards. Since 2016, she has been the Film Programme Coordinator at Hay Festival.