Mercia’s Take by Daniel Wiles review – life at the coalface | Fiction

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Daniel Wiles’s brutal, breviloquent debut novel opens with the first of many striking scenes that make strange and freshly terrifying a well-worn chapter in British history: the Industrial Revolution. Picture a dozen people trapped in a cage suspended on a huge iron chain, while beyond its bars, legions more scurry around a “vast sea of black land”. When eventually the cage moves, with a sound like “the cracking of fingerbones”, its momentum is downwards, deep into the belly of the Earth, where lamplit tunnels are filled with satanic bellowing, sweat and chokedamp.

The year is 1872 and the setting a small Black Country village whose landscape and social fabric are being savagely refashioned by its three collieries. Among those caged miners is Michael Cash, who has taken a second job in order to send his six-year-old son to school. Having himself started work while still a boy, labour that’s left him scarred by memories too lightless to coalesce into pictures, he’s determined that this won’t be his lad’s fate. But when taking that second job loses him his first, he feels his careful plan slipping through his fingers.

As a last resort, he asks a vicar to pray for him. From that moment on, his actions are determined by perceived “signs”, none greater than the gold he finds while hewing coal. It seems like the answer to all his prayers, except that his sly workmate, Cain, has plans of his own. Soon, Michael is tearing off on a quest that will take him by canal to Dudley, the burning heart of the Industrial Revolution, a place where sinister fogs swirl and the night glows red.

The gold exerts a fatal hold over Michael and goads his masculine pride, but his obsession is fired by more than hardship: finding it had felt like proof of some greater meaning, something beyond the deathly toil and dreamless sleep that comprises his days, and he is a man desperate to believe, even if it means compromising everything he’s clung to until now.

Wiles, who is from Walsall and the recipient of the UEA Booker prize foundation scholarship, has a keen eye for unnerving detail and the linguistic skill to do it justice. Here’s Cain, for instance, “his nose daftly small like a shirt pocket button and stabbing silver eyes that shone oddly bright”. When it comes to depicting the environmental toll of industry’s speed and greed, he conjures up a hell-scape, a land that looks “as though it had been pulled up from what was once underneath: an open wound” and contrasts sharply with images of snow-covered fields and laughing gulls.

The climate crisis is already spurring a reappraisal of the Industrial Revolution, but Mercia’s Take does something else, too: it gives voice to the long-buried experience of miners like Michael, whose lives became fodder for progress, and it does so in their own accents and argot, setting Wiles’s propulsive plot to a rhythmic beat. If this occasionally results in some jarring shifts as the novel toggles between vocabularies, and if the experimental note struck by its stark ending doesn’t feel altogether necessary, given the force of the prose and storytelling that precede it, then these are very small quibbles.

Mercia’s Take by Daniel Wiles is published by Swift Press (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply



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