Georgia Winstone-Cooper reviews the debut novel from Liz Hyder, Bearmouth, a playful book and deep ideas which follows the character Newt.
Bearmouth is an ambitious debut novel by Liz Hyder which dissects cultural norms of religion, labour, the rights of workers, and gender. Written from the perspective of a young protagonist known by the nickname Newt, Hyder presents a fictionalised society, but one which contains many elements of reality; the working conditions and treatment of miners and other labourers throughout history is depicted in a simplistic yet elegant manner. Hyder’s presentation of such themes through the eyes of a young character allows for their complexities to be questioned and considered in a style that does not condescend to its intended younger audience. Hyder never underestimates nor assumes the intelligence of her reader, indeed the primary exploration of organised religion as a means of controlling a population risks descending into ideas too complex to still entertain, yet Bearmouth remains accessible.
Set entirely within the titular mine, context is rarely provided in a direct manner; rather it appears organically through the dialogue and internal thought process of the protagonist; the narrative is fluid and information is never given unless it is natural to the situation or conversation. The story simply begins with the thoughtful musings of the protagonist and the first-person narrative style provides the reader with only as much information as the young and uneducated child has. Character development occurs only when more information is learned by Newt. The plot is primarily propelled by the introduction of a new worker, Devlin, who brings with him ideas of revolution and workers rights never before truly considered by the inhabitants of the mine; the characters learn to question all they know and are told, causing even Newt’s wise mentor, Thomas, to question his role in their underground society.
The most striking aspect of Hyder’s style is the semi-phonetic spelling as the novel is written entirely in the voice of a person who is barely literate. Yet it is clearly that of someone who is in education as there are hints of rudimentary grammatical rules throughout the poorly spelt text. This immensely detailed and considered style is necessary to understand the status and character of the protagonist without ever seeming to be a gimmick; every aspect of the text is careful and entirely consistent with the development of the plot and its characters. This unique style of writing is difficult to comprehend when first reading the novel, but this difficulty does not impinge upon the accessibility of the narrative. Education is an integral theme of the novel as Newt learns the potential of knowledge and of questioning established norms.
Bearmouth presents the horrors experienced by children forced to work down the mine, particularly during the Victorian period, without relaying too pointedly the working conditions of the time; had Hyder included more historically accurate information or references she would have done so at the expense of the unique narrative voice. Newt is uneducated but not unintelligent. Hyder highlights the necessity of education whilst also showing that wit is intrinsic and can still be perceived through poor spelling and grammar and unflinching faith in an omnipotent being. Little can be said of the plot without giving too much away. However, it is this simple narrative that provides the structure upon which Hyder explores immensely complex concepts and ideas. Hyder strikes the perfect balance in this realistically gritty yet highly intelligent and nuanced debut.
Bearmouth by Liz Hyder is available now from Pushkin Press.
Georgia Winstone-Cooper often contributes literature-related content to Wales Arts Review.