Tag Archives: Helen Mort

Black Car Burning by Helen Mort

I broke the back of it in three sittings. For someone who has not been able to finish a novel for months that was good going. It helped that I knew the author. I’ve listened to her read from her collections Division Street and No Map Could Show Them, in warehouse venues, theatres and library reading rooms across the city. Latterly she has made regular appearances on literary radio shows and television documentaries: and won a slew of prizes for her writing.  

Helen Mort online: https://www.helenmort.com/

How do we trust each other?

Alexa is a young police community support officer whose world feels unstable.

Caron is pushing Alexa away and pushing herself ever harder. A climber, she fixates on a brutal route known as Black Car Burning and throws herself into a cycle of repetition and risk. Leigh, who works at a local gear shop, watches Caron climb and feels complicit.

Each chapter, section, scene… is prefaced with an exquisitely crafted portrait of a single place from Helen’s beloved Sheffield: a street, an estate, a moorland, a rock’s face and character. The presence of these brief geographical snapshots and the way the author weave’s them into the narrative, feels fresh and exciting to me. Not a pithy quote from some learned scribe, but something heartfelt and real, something that sits apart and yet fits so readily with the storytelling. Helen does place so incredibly well. 

I liked how Helen’s women drank ale in old mans’ pubs; how they viewed the world with suspicion and wariness; the deep almost spiritual connection to the landscape they lived in; the strange way Mort doesn’t allow timeframes to get in the way: and the surprising sense of freedom ‘outside’ of their non-exclusive relationships. 

I wasn’t ready for how Helen’s use of language would make me feel, the words felt vital, alive precarious like they too were hanging from a jutting rock face, fingers jammed into handholds and tiptoes expertly balancing on a rock ridge. I enjoyed the climbing terminology, the poetry in the place names, and the deeper exploration into the mindset of a climber and what for me was a hitherto unknown, unchartered climbing subculture.   

Helen climbs, whether she has climbed Black Car Burning or not I don’t know. Throughout reading I resisted the temptation to scour the internet to see if the place names of the routes, the rocks were in fact real, or whether all had been a conjuring trick of the author. 

As I read Black Car Burning I was hearing news stories about Hillsborough in the present day, the ongoing fight for justice by the families of the 96. The bulletins ran in parallel to that of one of her characters ‘an ex-police officer who ‘compulsively revisits that day in 1989 that changed his life forever’. As he read about notebooks being altered after the fact, I was hearing in May 2021 that the charge of ‘perverting the course of justice; was being thrown out on a technicality: something about the notebooks being requested for administration purposes only, and not for a legal investigation: so even if they had been changed they could not now be used as evidence against the force. I wonder how the author felt about this slippery use of the letter of the law, as yet again the South Yorkshire police force ducked another arrow. 

For me Hillsborough – like it is for many – is pictures on a newsreel, dangling figures being hauled up football terraces, makeshift stretchers carrying people across the playing pitch, and football scarves and wreaths next to railings in remembrance of the dead. For Sheffield it seems like Hillsborough has become inextricably woven into the city’s identity. The impact still being felt in multiple different ways in the minds of every resident. Here in Hull we have the Triple Trawler Tragedy, the gruesome benchmark by which all other disasters are measured, and our own share of corruption and cover up in the death of Christopher Alder, and, as in Helen’s book, those people on both sides that long for the day the truth will out.

My lasting impression of the book – the first I’ve completed in months I remind you – is of a place not a million miles from where I write this, but in Helen’s hands it is an outside world transformed, familiar and inviting, unfamiliar and foreboding all at the same time. 

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