Black Car Burning
By Helen Mort Chatto & Windus 2019
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