Hello readers and welcome to my latest blog post. This time I will be reviewing Bearmouth, the debut novel from Liz Hyder. But, before we dive in and see what I thought, let’s have a look at that dependable old friend the blurb to find out exactly what this dark young adult book is about:
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. New 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.
I am not usually the biggest fan of young adult fiction but I found the subject matter and dark tone of this book very appealing. Unlike a lot of books aimed at a younger or middle grade audiences, this author pulls no punches and refuses to sugar coat the harsh, grim reality depicted in the book. On the surface, it is a book about friendship, loyalty and freedom but at its core it deals with the heavy subjects of capitalism, corrupt governments and organised religion with this novel being scathing about all three.
First, let’s look at the topics of capitalism and corrupt governments. The system described in the book is a more extreme version of today’s society. The poor are kept poor through low wages and the accumulation of debt. The miners who work in Bearmouth are paid pittance and everything costs money, including their own equipment and clothing necessary to perform their duties, as well as a lift to the surface, so no one can afford to get out. Management encourages further debt by presenting temptation to spend their money in in the form of alcohol, a welcome escape from the brutality of the mines but a perfect way to keep the men pliable and hard working. It reminds me very much of the slaves of Egypt being fed beer by their masters. The manager even sets quotas on a black board, saying continuously that they must increase productivity, even offering rewards (free beer of course) to the teams which gather the most coal. Have you heard anything more capitalist? Ignorance of the poor is also encouraged and the protagonist Newt is even told she is in trouble for her knowledge of writing and reading after one of her letters home is intercepted. That’s another thing that seems strangely and scarily familiar about Bearmouth, the residents are spied on by the masters and any sign of dissent crushed as those who dear to question the status quo are labelled ‘awkward men’ and their already difficult lives made even worse. When one of the characters Thomas dares to ask for a raise, his own bunk mates are offered money to spy on him and his friends. A more modern version would of course be the interception of electronic communications by our own governments who have overstepped their bounds on more than one ocassion. Any gatherings or groups are forbidden so any opportunity for rebellion or organisation such as a union is impossible. The poor get poorer, the rich get richer and the divide between the two gets wider and wider…sound familiar?
Then there is the topic of organised religion. The workers of Bearmouth are encouraged, and I use that term Kindly because it is more like forced, to follow a religion similar to most organised religions. A deity, in this case ‘The Mayker’ created the world and the humans which inhabit it. As the human’s proved ungrateful, they were punished and continue to be until a ‘sine’ is given that they are forgiven and set free. All the workers must attend church on Sundays, the only time they are permitted to gather in a group, where prayers are spoken, songs sung and everyone asks for forgiveness. Anything that happens, no matter how horrible, is ‘the maker’s way’ and should never be questioned lest you suffer his wrath. The miners work themselves to death (literally) as they are told they will be rewarded in the next life. The ‘Master’, the owner or perhaps manager of the mine, has been directly chosen by the Mayker himself and should therefore also never be questioned or doubted.
All the workers through their blind, unquestioning faith and loyalty to both the system and their religion, are easily controlled and manipulated. It is only with the arrival of someone who dares to ask a simple question, to say a simple word, that others begin to question things themselves: WHY?
Bearmouth is a dark and interesting read presenting complex topics in an interesting and easily understood way. Although the way in which it is written, with deliberate spelling mistakes, can be a little strange to get used to at first, I found it added to the naivety and vulnerability of the protagonist and allowed the reader to first understand why she does not question things and then journey with her as she begins to ask why herself, thereby making her journey and character arc seem more believable and relatable. It is the perfect read for lovers of Young Adult looking for something a little grittier and different and I enjoyed reading it. I would give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.
**I was gifted this book by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.**