1870s: The Black Country, in the West Midlands of England, once part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. Michael is a miner, determined that his six-year-old son, Luke, won’t suffer the same fate. No, his son will go to school. But school costs money. So Michael works at two mines, one exhausting shift after the other. He is quickly sacked from the new job, but even so the effort nearly kills him. Then he strikes gold. He digs it out with his stall mate, Cain, and they agree to take it to the pawnbroker and share the proceeds. What follows is a story of murderous greed, faith, pride, love and the land, Mercia, that both gives and takes.
When I read the first page, my heart sank: no quotes around the dialogue, and both the dialogue and text written in the vernacular of the Black Country. An example taken at random: ‘Ye get em when theym fresh, so iss easy to transport em, so they woe fall apart.’ (p 44). By the end of the second page I noticed nothing other than the beauty and power of the language. When you are reading, you are with Michael down in the hell he has to work in; you share his horror at the sight of children, both girls and boys, covered in cuts, bruises and open sores as they labour under the most dreadful conditions; and you understand his determination that his son should have the chance of a better life.
The book is both gritty and lyrical; gut-wrenching and heartening. It’s quite short, and I wish it wasn’t. This is a book that you will always remember for the language and the deep emotions it describes and evokes. Beautiful.