Bearmouth is a thriller inspired by the real stories of children working in Victorian mines (Hyder cites her research at the back). She takes us into the dark and dank depths of the fictional Bearmouth pit, where boys and men — enticed due to hunger and poverty above ground — live in subterranean dorms where they eat gruel and pay for candlelight, ink, paper and, occasionally, the privilege of visiting a higher level (they are never allowed out). Their treat? To go up to a meeting room to pray to the “Mayker”, their god, on Sundays and earn a meagre “coinage”, some of which might make its way to their mothers on the outside.
It’s a brave debut author who writes their novel from a first-person viewpoint and in a phonetic dialect, but Liz Hyder does just that in Bearmouth – and pulls it off. Since early childhood, protagonist Newt has lived in the oppressive darkness and hard labour of Bearmouth mine. The arrival of new boy Devlin lights a spark of “revolushun”, kickstarting a gritty but thrilling tale of power and rebellion. Don’t be fooled by Newt’s naive voice; the novel becomes ever darker as the nightmarish conditions are exposed, including the threat of sexual violence. A bold, arresting first book.
The protagonist of Liz Hyder’s excellent debut novel is neither girl nor boy, and hence is called Newt. Bearmouth presents a Morlockian world in which thousands of men work day and night deep within mines and are controlled by wicked, money-grubbing masters who invoke the divine Mayker to keep them in line. The anti-capitalist theme is clear and Hyder based her novel on real-life stories of Victorian child miners.