The unique, dark, gem that is Bearmouth is a debut written by Liz Hyder and published in September 2019 by Pushkin Press. I would recommend it for readers aged 12 and upwards. The protagonist, Newt, is a child, but I’m not sure I would call this a children’s book. There is violence and death aplenty in the mine.
This book springs from the intelligent and generous imagination of Liz Hyder, a debut author who is no stranger to those who work in the book world. Liz is a Catherine-wheel of a human being, an effervescent delight to work or play with. Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine she’d write a black diamond like Bearmouth. I’m a little in awe.
Bearmouth is a book about questioning authority and social structures, both religious and political. At times it reminded me of Emile Zola’s Germinal. It is a book about bravery, hope and the power of brains over brawn.
The story of Bearmouth is told by a child called Newt, in a powerful first person narrative. It is diary-like and the words are spelled phonetically as he learns his letters. You’re with Newt, cheek by jowl, every step of the way. His relationships with Thomas, Tobe and Devlin provide the pillars for his sanity in this hostile place. Newt’s methods of coping with the fear and danger of living and working in the mine show him to be smart, resourceful, strong and a thoroughly relatable protagonist. The world of the mine is evoked as solidly as the rock it’s hewn from, through Newt’s account of his day-to-day experience of working deep underground.
I read several books at once, and I happened to be reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland at the same time. The two books are perfect siblings, Bearmouth a fictional sister to Macfarlane’s exploration of underground realms. The claustrophobic world below the rock is conjured equally well by both authors.
Every syllable of Bearmouth has been considered. There is not one word too many. There are twists and shocks waiting for you in the mine. This book is an accomplished, intelligent, gripping, and unforgettable debut. It is both tender, brutal, and at times truly terrifying. You will not read another book like Bearmouth and once you start reading you will not be able to put it down. I thoroughly recommend you read it. It’s a story you’ll never forget.