Source: Review copy
Publication: 19th September 2019 from Pushkin Press
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.
First things first. Bearmouth is a gem of a book and I really loved it. Secondly it is aimed at a Y/A audience, for whom it would clearly be perfect, but I wouldn’t worry about classifications overmuch because there’s something in this book for everyone from mid –teens upwards to love.
Our protagonist is Newt Coombes, a ‘young’. Newt has worked down the mines for as long as time; or at least since Newt turned 4 years old. Not yet an adult, but expected to work like one, Newt is a fast and conscientious worker, not that there’s much reward to show for it at the end of the week. Conditions are terrible and the health of all the workers is poor. They eat, live and sleep underground, because going ‘up top’ costs more than they can afford. Even the pit ponies are forced to live in this subterranean hell.
Newt is looked after by Thomas; theirs is a relationship where Thomas is both teacher and protector, with a seam of genuine paternal affection running through. Workers in this claustrophobic hell-hole are kept subdued by a combination of beer and fear and the promise that ‘the Makyr’ will see them right in the next world, if certainly not in this one.
Into this nightmare existence Devlin arrives. He starts to ask questions that cause Newt to fear that he and by proximity, Newt, will be classed as ‘awkward’, meaning even fewer privileges, worse conditions and more opportunities for accidents. In Bearmouth you must obey the rules must or suffer the consequences.
But then, as Newt begins to come of age, something happens that changes Newt’s perspective and soon Newt is looking at Bearmouth with new eyes; eyes that feel as if they are freshly opened and which do not like what they see.
Liz Hyder’s Newt is a compelling and convincing character; a distinctive voice that speaks loudly and clearly of the desire for a better existence. Newt speaks phonetically and that feels absolutely right, though Thomas has been teaching spelling and this is recognised in the corrections Newt makes when thinking about what’s just been said.
Bearmouth is an intense, highly memorable and absolutely gripping debut novel. It offers a harrowing tale of children working down mines, but there is so much in it that has resonance for today. Not only are there children working down mines elsewhere in the world but we are conditioning young people to the gig economy with zero hours contracts and no employment rights. Getting them to consider the power of asking questions is the very least we can do for them.
Verdict: Bearmouth is a spell-binding, haunting and original novel, deserving of a wide readership. It is a tale of friendship, of social injustice and above all it is both a raw and an inspiring tale of how just one voice lifted above the noise can be the catalyst for change. Unmissable.
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.