Once in a while, you read a book that’s so absorbing, so powerful, so spellbindingly good that you can’t keep the news to yourself. Rarer still is the privilege of reading such a book before publication, before the explosion of accolades that you just know it’s going to get. Rarest of all are those times when you realise that the buzz from all sides is unanimous, and that everyone else who has read it is just as excited as you are.
It’s happening at the moment with a book called Bearmouth, which is published next week by Pushkin Press. It’s the debut novel by Liz Hyder, a Shropshire-based author who has worked for many years behind the scenes in the arts and publishing worlds, encouraging and helping other creative people to achieve the success and acclaim that they deserve. And now, with Bearmouth, it’s her turn.
Lest I be accused of log-rolling, before going any further I’ll declare an interest: Liz Hyder is a friend of mine. We’ve known each other for many years. Liz is clever, funny, modest, a voracious reader, a passionate advocate for the arts, a great gardener, a fantastic cook. I always knew that she sneaked away to her room to write stories, and like all her friends I was overjoyed by the news that her novel had been snapped up by a publisher. But until she sent me an advance copy of Bearmouth a few months ago, I’d never read any of her work. I honestly didn’t know what to expect.
I picked up Bearmouth and started reading. And I didn’t stop. It’s a rusty old cliché to say “I devoured it at one sitting”, but on this occasion it’s no more than the truth. I put down the book and I blinked. I took a deep breath. And then I dropped Liz a line to tell her what I’m going to tell you now: Bearmouth is so staggeringly good that, quite frankly, I was taken aback. You think you know someone, and then without warning they pull something like this out of the hat. It’s not that I doubted Liz was a hugely talented person. That much I’ve known for years. It’s just that… well, you know. It isn’t every day that an old mate goes and writes what is genuinely the best novel you’ve read in ages. I was thrilled. I was excited. I was moved. And when you read Bearmouth, you will be too.
Bearmouth is the story of Newt, a young mineworker whose world is an underground hell of darkness, cruelty and superstition. And actually, that’s pretty much all I want to tell you about the plot, because it’s a novel that deserves to be discovered and explored without foreknowledge, without spoilers. It’ll be found in the “Young Adult” section of your local Waterstones, and there’s nothing wrong with that – a YA novel is a fine, upstanding thing to be – but really and truly, like all good literature, Bearmouth transcends easy categorisation. Certainly it’s YA fiction, just as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird are. But like them, this is a book for everyone. Bearmouth isn’t really a this novel or a that novel. It’s a novel.
Newt’s adventure is an exciting one, but it’s the dirt in the grain that gives Bearmouth its extraordinary, haunting power. Woven into its fabric are big subjects: gender identity, child exploitation, the lies we are told by our leaders, religion as an instrument of state oppression. Filtering through the darkness, and through Newt’s doughty resilience, echoes a Dickensian rage at the way, not so very long ago, we sent children down mines to toil and die. Not unlike its plucky young narrator, Bearmouth is a novel that works on many levels.
There will doubtless be comparisons with the likes of Riddley Walker and A Clockwork Orange, because Newt’s story is narrated – brilliantly – in a mangled argot all its own. But whether this is the broken-down dialect of some future dystopia, or the voice of an unschooled child from the past, is a question that is left carefully opaque. It’s one of the novel’s masterstrokes. Yes, comparisons are inevitable, because that’s how we all measure art, how we review it, how we make up our minds about it. But in the end, Bearmouth is unique. It is entirely its own creation. It heralds the arrival of a striking new voice in English fiction, and I still haven’t quite got over the delicious shock of realising that it’s the voice of my old chum Liz.
Morrissey famously sang “We hate it when our friends become successful,” but then he was always a miserable old sod, wasn’t he? Personally, I bloody love it when my friends become successful. With Bearmouth, Liz Hyder is about to become very successful indeed, and she deserves every drop of it. You’re going to be hearing a lot more about this dark, compelling, wonderful, world-class novel. I urge you to read it.
Bearmouth by Liz Hyder is published on 19th September 2019 by Pushkin Press.