Black Car Burn­ing

By He­len Mort Chatto & Win­dus 2019

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If you’ve never heard of He­len Mort, you should look her up. Not only is she an award-win­ning poet, a fell run­ner and climber, she is now a nov­el­ist. Mort is a Fel­low of the Royal So­ci­ety of Lit­er­a­ture in the U.K., and she has been short­listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Costa Prize. Mort is also the author of No Map Could Show Them,

poems about the counter cul­ture of for­ward-think­ing climb­ing ladies of the Vic­to­rian era. Mort’s lat­est work of fic­tion, Black Car Burn­ing, packs learn­ings from all her var­i­ous iden­ti­ties into one as­tound­ing book.

Black Car Burn­ing is an edgy book (no climb­ing pun in­tended) that al­ter­nates be­tween life and his­tory in Sh­effield, U.K., and the lo­cal crags at Stan­age nearby. The story and char­ac­ters are cen­tered on the worst sport­ing dis­as­ter in U.K. his­tory, when 96

young foot­ball fans lost their lives when they were crushed to death at the Hills­bor­ough foot­ball sta­dium in the late 1980s. Trust is the cen­tral theme of the book – trust in re­la­tion­ships, trust in climb­ing, trust in one­self and per­haps mis­trust in the Hills­bor­ough in­quiries that set the stage for the novel.

The three main char­ac­ters, Alexa, Caron and Leigh, are all young women find­ing their feet. Try­ing to es­tab­lish a bal­ance be­tween life, work and re­la­tion­ships through climb­ing, they all wres­tle with their own his­to­ries and find both so­lace and chal­lenge at the crag. Caron is par­tic­u­larly fo­cused on send­ing Black Car Burn­ing, one of the tough­est routes at Stan­age Edge. She pushes her­self to the point of driv­ing her friends and lovers away, com­pul­sively train­ing and re­hears­ing the route.

Mort does an ex­cep­tional job of us­ing her po­etry skills to il­lus­trate and an­i­mate the land­scape around Sh­effield and Stan­age. Her vo­cab­u­lary is rich with metaphor, and she al­lows the hills around Sh­effield to lit­er­ally speak and share their feel­ings with the reader: “You’re a stranger here, chalk­ing up, press­ing your fin­gers into the white pow­der you keep in a bag at your waist, then touch­ing my quar­ried face, glanc­ing up at the bolts they sta­pled to me. My skin is crum­bling, punched metal­lic.”

Black Car Burn­ing is not your typ­i­cal climb­ing book. Like the author, it’s badass. It crosses the line of al­ter­na­tive life­styles and ur­ban­ism and how these can in­ter­sect with na­ture. More “Punks in the Gym” and less “Eiger North Face,” the novel ad­dresses many of the ex­ist­ing global prob­lems we face, cul­tural ten­sions, im­mi­gra­tion and, most no­tably, mis­trust in the “sys­tem.” It’s bold and un­for­giv­ing. Mort’s work speaks un­de­ni­ably with a mod­ern voice that will shake up ex­pec­ta­tions of tra­di­tional moun­tain lit­er­a­ture, and the climb­ing com­mu­nity will be grate­ful for it.—joanna Cros­ton

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