“You sed it taykes one person to start a revolushun, but that ent true is it? Taykes more than one. One to start it and uvvers to believe it can happen."
The genderless protagonist of Liz Hyder's Bearmouth goes by the name Newt. That name is one of the few things Newt has ever been freely given in the mines of Bearmouth, as they are neither friendly nor generous. The miners must pay the Masters for their boots and their tools, and even the precious candles that allow them to see their work. But work is the only way to survive, because all this toil ticks on under the blessing of the Mayker. The Mayker is all-seeing and all-knowing, and his prayer says the miners were cast down for their sins. And it is only when the Mayker deigns to give a sign that the workers will be free. Until then, the miners belong to the mines.
The time period of Liz Hyder's ambitious YA debut is unclear, as is the society of the wider world that allows such heinous conditions to exist. But the immediate setting is dark and warm and damp. Claustrophobic and oppressive, sunless and barren; this is Bearmouth, and it might as well be the end of the world.
The close, nightmarish setting is one of the most striking things about the book. It will remain with you long after you have turned the last page. What you might notice from the very first page, though, is Newt's voice:
I am lernin my lettuz
I am lernin mi letterz
I am lerrnin my lettiss
I am lernin my letterz.
I am learnin my letters.
Better, says Thomas as he blows out the lyte.
In a way, reading Bearmouth invokes the sense of wading into a foreign language, the sense of deeper meaning lurking beneath the unfamiliar and strange. Best of all, the text itself evolves with Newt, reflecting the protagonist’s learning and realizations. At the very beginning of the novel, Newt is resigned to the conditions of Bearmouth. To some extent, Newt even embraces Bearmouth — the members of their dorm being the only family they have ever truly known, the mine itself the only home that has any meaning or certainty for them. Not only does Newt not want an escape. They can't even imagine an escape from the prison that is Bearmouth, despite the obvious oppression and the inequality between the miners and the Masters. Newt is even suspicious of the new arrival on their team, Devlin, because the new boy's name rhymes with the enemy of the Mayker.
"It carnt be a coincidence. Devil. In. Can it?"
Though the borders and details of Bearmouth’s wider world are only vaguely hinted at, the novel’s impact lies in the way that Newt progresses from a willing prisoner to a revolutionary. What it takes for Newt to choose freedom — and to make that freedom real — touches on some of the darkest and most gut-wrenching themes rarely dealt with in YA.
Hyder doesn’t shy away from portraying the cruelty of Newt’s world in unflinching detail: one of the major developments in Newt’s story involves escalating threats from another group of miners, culminating in an act of sexual aggression where the only way for Newt to defend themselves is by answering violence with violence. The moment highlights Newt’s sense of powerlessness against the system — a powerlessness that may feel all too real to many readers, especially those growing up in a system that seems eternally rigged against them. But it also becomes the first step in Newt taking back control over their own thoughts, their own body, and their own choices.
Ultimately, Newt’s journey is about how the tools that are used to control us are also the tools that we can use to free ourselves. The realities of Bearmouth might be grim, and the exploitation horrific, but the novel is, more than anything, a reminder that even a single spark of hope can be enough to light a wildfire — or at the very least, a stick of dynamite.
By Liz Hyder
320 pages. 2020.
Buy it here.