Even in the darkest of places, there is a glimmer of hope - Bearmouth by Liz Hyder
Liz Hyder’s Bearmouth tells the story of an exploitative mining business, where both adults and children work side by side in brutal conditions, under the rule of the despicable Mayker. Told in the distinctive phonetic English of narrator Newt and exploring the themes of class, friendship and rebellion this YA debut is startlingly original and is already garnering glowing reviews from readers and authors within the YA community.
In a piece written exclusively for Foyles, author Liz Hyder reveals some of her author inspirations and those books which ignited her young imagination, ultimately leading to her writing a debut novel of such power and (literal) depth, that you’ll feel the coal dust on your skin and stoop to avoid the mine’s roof so close above your head
I’ve always read a lot, ever since I first worked out how to decipher the marks on the pages, I’ve been a serial devourer of books. I loved disappearing into other worlds, falling down through the pages of a book to other imagined places, meeting characters who became friends, fearing for them and falling for them. When I was a child, it was my older sister who taught me to read, along with various soft toys who attended her ‘school.’ I shared a bedroom with her too and when our lights went out, I used to dig out whatever current book had me in its thrall, pull open a corner of the curtain and read by the faint orange glow of the streetlights - little wonder that my eyes are so bad now.
I cannot help but read – if there is text on a page or on a wall or anywhere, I have a compulsion to read it, from the emergency signs on trains to the back of a cereal packet or the ingredients in a soap bar. But these are all just snippets, little unintentional haikus scattered everywhere, for it is storytelling that I’m ultimately hankering after. Stories that feel so real, so utterly absorbing that when you look back up, the world looks ever so slightly different to before. Stories that tilt you upon your own axis, that haunt your dreams, that live long in your memory many moons after you’ve turned that last glorious page.
I strongly believe that many of the best and most startlingly original storytellers today are found within the children’s and young adult sections in our libraries and bookshops. I feel deeply sorry for those adults who no longer read children’s and teen fiction, they’re missing out on the some of the finest books of our age. There are writers like Katherine Rundell and Kiran Milwood Hargrave whose beautiful prose lingers like music whilst they weave the most gripping of tales. There are writers who will make your belly ache with laughter like Sara Barnard, Patrice Lawrence, Holly Bourne and Muhammad Khan, before making your cheeks run wet with tears. There are writers too that glory in minimalism, whose sparse sentences somehow magically conjure up place and atmosphere, bewitching you with their words, casting a spell over you to transport you to another time and place. Alan Garner’s strange, haunting trilogy that begins with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and ends with Boneland, one of the best and most original books I’ve ever read, will crush your heart and make your soul sing, it will bruise and inspire you and, I promise you, you will never forget it. I’d also put Sally Gardner’s extraordinary Tinder in that same category. With disturbingly beautiful illustrations by David Roberts, it’s an exquisite tale told simply and skilfully and it will lurk in the shadows of your dreams for many a night afterwards.
Garner is a genius at using place – usually his beloved Alderley Edge and the surrounding environs - as a character, something that Sarah Crossan excels at too. Crossan’s latest, Toffee, is a verse novel, still more common in American teen fiction than over here, but Crossan, the Irish Children’s Laureate, has pioneered the resurgence for a British audience. Toffee is funny, sad, wise and beautiful, you can smell the salt wind of the Cornish seaside in the poetry, taste the ice cream on your tongue, feel the sand between your toes. The characters leap off the page straight into your heart and, if you’ve never read a verse novel, this is a great place to start.
For one of the most original and powerful voices in fiction though, the tour de force that is Malorie Blackman is absolutely a must-read. A consummate storyteller, she can seemingly turn her hand to anything, from a whole array of books for different ages to the acclaimed Rosa Parks episode in the latest series of Doctor Who. The Noughts and Crosses series, which a friend recommended to me many years ago, is phenomenal - utterly compelling, moving and unashamedly smart in the way it explores prejudice, racism, love and friendship. Read it or re-read it before the TV series hits our screens later this year.
No piece on original voices for younger people would be complete without a mention of masterful storyteller Philip Reeve. He throws you without mercy into whole imaginary worlds populated with characters that are entirely real. From inter-dimensional trains in the Railhead trilogy to the hungry, greedy cities on the move in the Mortal Engines quartet, his imagination seemingly knows no bounds. I will happily read anything he writes and I’ve got a particularly soft spot for the bonkers series of books he’s co-created with the marvellous illustrator Sarah McIntyre. A beautiful example of two talents at the top of their game working closely together on everything from storylines to the complete book to create something entirely original. Cakes in Space, Pugs of the Frozen North and, my current favourite The Legend of Kevin, about a plump flying pony, are all utterly glorious.
There are tremendous original writers of historical fiction for children and young adults too, from Michelle Paver’s gripping Chronicles of Ancient Darkness set in the Stone Age to the glorious Catherine Johnson who’s written about everything from the explorer and navigator Matthew Henson (Race to the Frozen North, Arctic Hero) to the ‘you couldn’t make it up’ story of Princess Caraboo (The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo). Paver’s minimalist yet pacy writing is a masterclass in tension and plotting and Johnson’s books have a phenomenal energy that keeps you turning the page until suddenly you find you’ve binge-read the whole thing.
When I first set out to write what would become Bearmouth, my debut novel, I wanted to write a page-turning fable set entirely within the confinements of an old working mine yet I didn’t want to be beholden to the realities of Victorian mining (horrific and fascinating though they are). I wanted my mine to be a place that existed in my imagination, a place of darkness, danger and foreboding, somewhere in which exploitation was taken as the natural order of things and in which the very act of asking a question could be seen as an act of rebellion. Told in the first person by Newt, the main protagonist, in a distinctive voice, I’d love to think Bearmouth is genuinely original too, but in truth, like all writers, I’ve been inspired and influenced by all the other stories I’ve devoured over the years. From classic series like Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising to John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, from CS Lewis and Malcolm Saville to contemporary writers, all those words I’ve absorbed over the years have undoubtedly seeped into my imagination in some way. All I can do now is hope that Newt’s story and the words that I wrote, will seep into your imagination too.
Liz Hyder is a writer, experienced workshop leader and award-winning arts PR consultant. She has a BA in drama from the University of Bristol and, in early 2018, won the Bridge Award/Moniack Mhor's Emerging Writer Award. She is currently working on her second book and a range of other creative projects. Bearmouth is her debut novel.