‘Bearmouth’ – Liz Hyder

Bearmouth was one of the books recommended to my students by our 2020 Book PenPal, Holly Race, so I couldn’t resist reading it before I passed my copy round to those interested.

When I began reading I, like a number of other readers, took time to adjust to the phonetic style of writing used to mimic our main character’s voice. Initially this meant the reading felt slower than I’d like, but it certainly became one of the features of the book that I really enjoyed. The voice of Newt changed as they developed in confidence, and I enjoyed seeing the shifting patterns of language as they grew in awareness of the world around them.

Our first encounter with Newt was intriguing. We are told, very early on, that Newt is ‘not a boy nor yet a wimmin’ and though this becomes important later, it is their life in the Bearmouth mine that grips us. Newt has worked in the mine for many years, and is looked after by his team. There’s a grim sense of camaraderie to the team as they risk their lives on a daily basis to dig for coal, and to earn a living for others.

From the outset Newt points out the harshness of their life underground. We quickly come to realise the superstitions that bind these men and boys, and the injustice that they face on a daily basis as someone else controls their every move.

As the story progressed we learn more about Newt and their unease surrounding the appearance of a new boy, Devlin. With the arrival of the new face comes a sense of growing awareness of the injustice of their existence, and a slow-burning plan to change things.

While most of the reviews I’ve read of this focus on the writing style, I was also struck by the brutality of their lives underground and the grudging acceptance of death in its many guises. There are a couple of scenes that I think I will need to advise some of my students of and give them the decision as to whether or not to read, but I feel the situation that prompts Newt to develop a social conscience is sympathetically presented and Hyder should be applauded for not shying away from the less salubrious elements of their lives.

Throughout the book I was rooting for some form of happy ending and though this is rather more ambiguous than you might like in a stand-alone read, I felt our ending offered enough to leave me satisfied with Newt’s choices and their consequences.