A week of isolation (in the broadest sense, as I am sharing the property with 3 teenagers, a dog, 4 chickens – and even, occasionally, my doctor husband) is already done and gone, and I wonder how you are finding it? I’ve been surprised at how quickly this new way of living has started to feel normal. I look at films and ads on tv of people milling about in groups, hugging and kissing, and wonder why they are taking so few precautions. Shouldn’t they be more wary? Where on earth are their masks and gloves?!
I think about going out to get provisions and a great weariness overwhelms me. It’s so demanding and stressful negotiating public spaces. Better to stay at home and, hopefully, harm no one.
I suppose it is one of the great abilities of our species that we so quickly adapt to new circumstances and environments. And that is a good way into thinking about my next book recommendation to you – ‘Bearmouth’ by Liz Hyder. Published in 2019 by Pushkin Press.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Liz is a writer friend of mine. I remember the moment, sitting in her front room, when she told me about her nearly finished YA book set in a fictionalised Victorian mine. At the time I thought “what a fabulous title!”
Now, six months after its publication, I can tell you that the content more than matches the cover.
The main character is one of the young mine workers, Newt, and the story is told in Newt’s unique voice and language, (which takes only two or three pages to get used to – especially if you have a phonetic speller in your household, as I do). The men, boys and (secret) girls in the mine are all subject to the most rigid form of isolation. Newt hasn’t seen daylight since the age of four. The workers are exploited, and kept ignorant of their rights. The masters exert their authority ruthlessly, with tiny rewards and a twisted form of religion.
Sounds dark – and it is, literally and figuratively. But there is so much humanity in Bearmouth – as we also see at this dark time in our own society. People help each other, even at risk of their own death. People give hope to each other, and like the rare candles in the dark of the mine, strength, compassion and love shine out in the darkness. The mine is a microcosm of society, and the plot shows how courage and vision can change even the most entrenched evil.
I read Bearmouth in one sitting, on a plane on my way to see my dad in the US (and doesn’t that feel like another era already?) I was utterly immersed in a story that flows like water through an underground cave system, carrying you on to the inevitable waterfall of freedom. Forgive me the poetic licence, please. What I am trying to say is that ‘Bearmouth’ will grab you and not let you go – taking you through the darkest places and then, so satisfyingly, into starlight.
Although marketed as a Young Adult novel, and shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Books of the Year 2020, ‘Bearmouth’ is a great adult read too.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.