Bearmouth by Liz Hyder (Review)

Quote: There is a fire in my belly and like the phoenix in Thomas's stories, I am reborn anew.

People are only as dayngeruss as you give em leeve to be, little one.

I heard the hype around this one when it was released, but I hadn’t gotten around to getting my hands on it yet. So when I was offered a review copy, I jumped at it. I’d heard nothing but good things about this book, and we know I’m a sucker for an unusual narrative style. Bearmouth didn’t disappoint me on either count. This is going on my list as one of my best reads this year, because of the sheer impact it had on me.

Trigger warnings: attempted rape, implied off-page rape and sexual assault, brief mentions of racism, beatings, murder, manslaughter, grief.

Rating: 5 stars!

Thanks to Pushkin Press for sending me a finished copy of this book. It hasn’t affected my honest opinion.

The plot:

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. Newt 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.

What did I think?

Bearmouth is set in a mine, where men and boys work hard for pennies to make money for the Master. But that’s okay, because the Master is the descendent of the Mayker, and the Mayker is their god. One day the Mayker will give them a sign, and they’ll all be free. I don’t know a lot about the labour history surrounding mines, just what I’ve picked up from other reading about Victorian-era forced labour and some that I remember, weirdly enough, from a ghost tour I did years ago that hit several workhouses. From what I can tell this book is an alternate history that ties in aspects of real history that felt very true, particularly where religion was used as a method of control against the workers. It is not by any measure a happy, easy-going book, but I do think it’s an incredibly moving story written in a fascinating way.

The narrative style immediately jumps out from the first page, when we see Newt practicing their letters, or ‘lernin my lettuz’ as they write it. Newt was brought into the mine as a ‘young’, able to fit into small coal seams and climb through passages adults wouldn’t be able to fit into, and therefore was illiterate. The whole book, to me, feels like a diary in which they’re practicing their writing and the spelling does improve throughout the book as they learn more and more. The first couple of pages were an adjustment to read, but after that it was easy to read as I adjusted to the style of writing. I liked that the lack of literacy wasn’t used to imply that Newt, or any of the other miners, were stupid. They’re all clever people, working hard at the job they know well, they’ve just never had the privilege of being taught to read and write. Something about this narrative style made me feel really strongly emotionally connected to Newt. Through Newt I fell in love with all of the characters that made up their makeshift family and I felt like I was experiencing everything with them, along for the ride inside their head, and that made for the tensest read of the year so far. By the end of the book I was on the edge of my seat with nerves, waiting anxiously to find out how Newt’s story would end. It’s rare I get a genuine adrenaline rush from a book but Bearmouth gave one to me.

This is a dark story. Men and boys are being worked twice as hard and criminally underpaid, controlled and manipulated through money, food and social shame – the ‘awkwud men’ were those who caused trouble and should be avoided. There’s also fairly explicit on-page sexual assault and attempted rape so please read with caution. The darkness of the book perfectly suited the setting that Liz Hyder created. The people in power behaved monstrously, because they can, and loss comes thick and fast in a world were people are treated as a replaceable resource. However, I didn’t finish this book feeling miserable, I feel hopeful and empowered above all else. Especially in the social climate we’re facing right now, there was something overwhelmingly powerful about reading about a group of seemingly powerless, subjugated individuals fighting together against oppression. I think despite the darkness this is very much a story about hope. As Newt says themself about revolution:

Taykes more than one. One to start it and uvvers to believe it can happen.

Links:

Add it on Goodreads here!

Buy at Hive if you can and support your local indie booksellers! Also available at Waterstones and Amazon.

2 thoughts on “Bearmouth by Liz Hyder (Review)

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