Black Car Burning: a mature and evocative debut novel exploring the ties that bind us

Set amid the dramatic millstone grit escarpments of South Yorkshire and Derbyshire, poet Helen Mort’s first novel inhabits a female-focused world within a machismo climbing scene.

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There has always been a strong crossover between poetry and rock climbing. Consider the names bestowed upon routes by climbers who have triumphed over crag, gravity and death itself: Valkyrie, Careless Torque, Quietus and Black Car Burning – “a name that seemed to smoulder,” writes Helen Mort in her debut novel, “something acrid and tense about it. It made her think of sudden death, a car wrapped around a tree, or three men standing back with cans of petrol while the windows and doors went up in flames.”

Consider too that many of these routes up rough bluffs and precipitous cliffs are otherwise known as “problems”. On the surface they are obstructions solved by tactics and physical prowess. But it’s a deeper, romantic view of the landscape that continually draws climbers, a rum and disparate bunch, up into the hills, many striving for the mythological status afforded to their heroes. Climbing is a pursuit founded upon stories of triumph, daring and death.

Mort, an award-winning poet, makes climbing the backdrop for her novel. Already established as one of the leading lights in a clutch of rising poets (among them Andrew McMillan, Zaffar Kunial and Steve Ely) from or writing about post-industrial Yorkshire, Mort’s terrain is the dramatic millstone grit escarpments of South Yorkshire and Derbyshire, an area best exemplified by the three-mile-long Stanage Edge. This landmark also sits at the heart of M John Harrison’s 1989 novel Climbers, which similarly focused on a disparate group of obsessives engaged in their own private battles. It acts as a kind of ur-text here: Mort quotes from it at the beginning of her novel, and the eccentricities and alienation experienced by Harrison’s characters echo on into Black Car Burning.

But Mort – whose second poetry collection No Map Could Show Them told the stories of early female mountaineers – makes this world her own. Climber Caron fixates on the route for which the novel is named, drawing in climbing shop worker Leigh, who thinks it “so far beyond anything she could ever dream of climbing”. Meanwhile, Caron’s partner Alexa, a community support officer, navigates the economically deprived Sheffield suburb of Page Hall, where racial tensions surround the Roma diaspora and the English Defence League regularly voices its discontent (in November last year the Guardian described Page Hall as “a time bomb” of social tensions; the Sun has been far less charitable). Alexa and Caron have an open relationship – a flashback to a stoned erotic encounter at the desert plains of Burning Man Festival provides sunburned respite from the inclement weather of the English uplands.

Beneath this main narrative lies the shadow of an event that has haunted Yorkshire for 30 years: the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster, in which 96 football fans were killed. Given the 2016 verdict of unlawful killing and the complicity of the South Yorkshire police force in that dark day’s events, it’s a particularly prescient plot-line. Mort handles it with tact, but does not understate the after-effects for all involved, police included. Links are drawn between the asphyxia of victims buried in a crush of bodies and the crush of avalanche snow that kills climbers. Trauma, Mort suggests, is another form of haunting.

Often poets take up fiction to turn their talents to (marginally) better financial rewards and it is Mort’s poetic eye that elevates this debut. Her descriptions are a pure pleasure. Punctuating the prose are one-page sections where landmarks – caves, river, edges and even Hillsborough stadium – are given a first person voice, collectively creating a Greek chorus-style commentary: “Above the valley, the moon is a blood moon, tinged pink like the residue left inside an egg, a wound in the clouds, an incredulous mouth, the sky around it seeping.”

In characters such as Leigh – who is in an unsatisfactory relationship with adulterous Tom and is attracted to Caron’s obsession with solving the problem of Black Car Burning – we’re reminded that life can be marked by the relationships we develop. Leigh’s role in the coming together of the central players is deftly delivered.

Black Car Burning explores the ties that bind us: literally, while strung across a cliff face in high winds, or figuratively in the tenuous bonds that hold both relationships and communities together, and which we are all responsible for maintaining. It’s especially gratifying to inhabit a female-focused world within a climbing scene still partly defined by machismo and male bravado. Helen Mort’s writing is confident and compassionate and this is a mature and evocative debut. 

Ben Myers’s books include “Under the Rock: The Poetry of a Place” (Elliott & Thompson). His novel “The Offing” is published in August by Bloomsbury Circus

Black Car Burning
Helen Mort
Chatto & Windus, 336pp, £14.99

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes