Black Car Burning by Helen Mort
This is my second post for the Dylan Thomas Prize Longlist Blogtour, and I couldn’t have picked two more contrasting books (my first was Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy, reviewed here). They may have been contrasting in subject matter and style, but both were intense and thought-provoking books to read. Let me tell you more about Black Car Burning and its author.
Black Car Burning is poet Helen Mort’s first novel. She was born in Sheffield in the mid-1980s, and her birth city and the nearby Peak District National Park play a very large part in the book. I’ll come back to the psychogeography that this novel is laced with later, but first I need to introduce the four main characters whom the story revolves around.
Alexa is a Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) in Sheffield, a city of many disparate communities and she sees and has to react to tensions between them on a daily basis but feels she can have little real effect. Her personal life is under strain too, her father is estranged, and her girlfriend Caron is growing remote, their previously open relationship not working as it used to. Caron is a climber, with an obsessive need to repeatedly conquer a difficult climbing route known as Black Car Burning. Her determination is pushing Alexa away. The third main female character in this novel is Leigh, she works at a local outdoor shop with her boss, Pete, who is and aspires to climb like Caron. The fourth character is mostly known as ‘Him’. An ex-police officer, he is still constantly replaying the events of April 15th, 1989 in his mind. He can’t forget the Hillsborough disaster and obsessively follows the inquests. Mort alternates her main narrative between three of these four voices; we don’t hear directly from Caron, we see her through her interactions with the others.
There is another voice in this book though, and that’s where a sense of psychogeography comes in for Mort gives the landscape its own words. The different areas of the city, the hills, the roads and tracks witness what is happening in their demesnes. Each of the characters’ chapters is preceded by one of these sections, loads of smaller voices, speaking as one through the landscape. This is where Mort is at her most poetic in her writing.
…The shape of the moors in the distance, a dark cloth thrown over a tabletop. The stars above them. The satellites. The galaxy. The smell of something heavy, cloying as it fills the air. A single crane, still above the ex-workshops and foundries. The grass amphitheatre behind the station, a boy who is crouching, bending to write his name on the wall, beautifully, in three colours.
I’m lucky, I’ve been to Yorkshire, to the areas around Sheffield and the Peak District quite a few times over the years. I know it just well enough to be able to clearly picture these landscapes and cityscapes in my mind based on that experience. The text is so drenched in place, that a reader unversed in Sheffield’s environs could feel a little lost – or – could still appreciate the magnetic, poetic writing in these parts.
This is a character driven novel, the plot is there but is secondary. Through her quartet, Mort asks questions about social injustice and trauma, but most of all about trust. I did particularly enjoy the way the characters interacted with the landscape and city. It is an intense story that demands concentration from the reader and I’ll admit it took me a while to get into the book, but I’m glad I persevered past the initial chapters.