Black Car Burning by Helen Mort is the debut novel by the well-respected poet, which was published in April by Chatto & Windus. This book, beautifully produced, is in many ways a celebration of Mort’s home town Sheffield and its surrounding Peaks and villages. Mort’s 2016 poetry collection No Map Could Show Them examined the experiences of hikers and mountaineers in ‘poems of passions and precipices’, to quote the cover blurb. That book followed 2013’s much-lauded Division Street. Black Car Burning is named for an arduous climb in the Peak District – the pictures revealed by a quick Google search genuinely gave me vertigo – and the book is an exploration of timeless themes of trauma, freedom, trust and alienation, set among Sheffield’s climbers. The book focuses on the lives of a police community support officer, Alexa, and her girlfriend, the charismatic and fearless Caron, who is part of the city’s underground climbing community (I don’t think I was ever quite clear how she supports herself financially). Alexa and Caron’s relationship is becoming increasingly bumpy, as Caron is more and more distant both emotionally and physically, often halfway up a sheer rock face. The perceived freedom of polyamory is contrasted with the loneliness Alexa feels within her own polyamorous relationship, while Alexa’s rule-bound experience, pounding the streets of Sheffield, forms a contrast with Caron’s freedom, unbound by legalities, often suspended high above the ground. The backdrop to all this is the Hillsborough disaster – in which 96 football supporters lost their lives unlawfully at Sheffield’s Hillsborough stadium in 1989 – which continues to haunt the lives of more than one key character in the novel.
Mort is at her most assured in her creation of a sense of place, and the elemental is beautifully evoked, as one might expect from a writer whose first love was poetry. Chapters describing the evolving relationships between the various characters are interspersed with single page interludes, in which often timeless locations are personified, to provide lushly described, omniscient observations from the quarries, mountains and streets, observing their human visitors and residents: Every night this week I’ve been washed clean, the ferns sagging with water, the rocks a private bowl for mist and dampnesss, soaked then dried too fast for the wind. However, the prose is never allowed to become too purple.
The events of the book unfold not just in the rocks and quarries of the surrounding countryside, but on the streets and in the bars of Sheffield. Mort is good at noting the contrasts between a city that is patchworked with newly gentrified areas, student houses, long-term residents and migrant communities living – not always entirely happily – alongside each other. She is also great on scene-setting when describing the febrile atmosphere of festivals and house parties, for example: there was a kid on the top step, dancing on his own to an imaginary rhythm. He kept stepping both feet down and then up again. He had his eyes closed, but he never stumbled.
The stories of the apparently disparate characters gradually come into focus, through a series of inter-woven patterns and connections, as the book plots a steady course, meticulously balanced. Other main characters include the hard-drinking, damaged Pete, who works in a climbing shop with Leigh. She, meanwhile, is failing to find intimacy in her own relationship with the good-looking but emotionally unavailable Tom, who is firmly shacked up with his glossy long-term girlfriend.
Trust, and lack of it, comes up again and again. Trust between climbers – let’s face it, handing over a safety rope to someone while you climb a vertiginous slope is an enormous act of blind trust. Trust between lovers and families, trust between different ethnic groups, and trust in the authorities paid to keep us safe. But it’s also about learning to trust oneself. As one character notes: you’ve got to learn to trust yourself before you can trust anyone else. The book is ultimately uplifting, in its recognition of human resilience and the capacity for renewal.
If you enjoyed this review of Black Car Burning by Helen Mort, you may enjoy other reviews in Issue 38 of The Blue Nib