Black Car Burning by Helen Mort – Dylan Thomas Prize Longlist Blogtour

My second book for the Dylan Thomas Prize Longlist Tour was written by acclaimed poet Helen Mort. Black Car Buring is her first novel.

What a harsh beauty this book is. As harsh and as beautiful as the location it’s set in – Sheffield and the surrounding area, notably the rocky Peak District, a climber’s paradise and hell.

Sheffield sounds like a place with its own very special challenges, notably in some of the less affluent quarters, where people try to cohabitate with people from different cultures. The lack of trust, an important theme of the book, makes their life together very difficult.

Sheffield is the city where the notorious Hillsborough disaster took place. During an association football match at Hillsborough Stadium, on 15 April 1989, the stadium collapsed, crushing 96 people. At the time, when this novel is set, 2014, the inquiry into the disaster is taken up again. The disaster is central in the book as some of its characters have been deeply traumatized by it.

The story centers on four main characters, Alexa, a young police community support officer, and her climber girlfriend Caron, Leigh, another climber, who is drawn to Caron, and finally Pete, who works with Leigh. Pete is a former policeman who left the force because of the Hillsborough disaster during which he was present. Watching helplessly how people were crushed and slowly suffocated scarred him for life.

Alexa and Caron are in an open relationship which did work before but Caron is withdrawing more and more. She’s not only a passionate but a compulsive climber, tempted to take great risks. Her biggest goal is to climb Black Car Burning, one of the most difficult rocks to climb.

The characters are all climbers but very different ones. While Caron looks for risky challenges, the others, while still adventurous, are far me careful. They all react differently to the landscape around them. Not only the rocks and mountains but Sheffield and it’s districts.

This is an intriguing book, it’s fascinating to see these people navigate the landscape and their relationships and how these mirror each other.

The most intriguing passages of this novel, the ones that show us Mort is a poet, are the page-long chapters written in first person, which we find between most of the other chapters. The writing is luminous and shines like Mica. At first, I wasn’t sure who was talking but then soon discovered – it was the landscape itself that was given a voice – parks, streets, rivers, rocks, the city and its surrounding landscape, ever present, are observing and talking. Those passages are stunning and beautiful.

Here’s an excerpt from an example titled The Trees:

At night the trees call to each other across the roofs of the houses. There are so many, but there are never enough for an army. Some of them are splayed and ancient with voices like church doors. The saplings sound like bicycle brakes on a wet day.

Black Car Buring is masterfully written, poignant, and topical. It treats themes like social injustice, trauma, relationships and the way people deal with landscapes and cities, with sensitivity. It paints a portrait of contemporary Britain that manages to convey both challenges and beauty.

Thanks go to Midas PR for a free copy of the book.

The Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize recognizes the best published work in the English language written by an author aged 39 or under. All literary genres are eligible, so there are poetry collections nominated as well as novels and short stories. The other 11 books on this year’s longlist are:

  • Surge, Jay Bernard
  • Flèche, Mary Jean Chan
  • Exquisite Cadavers, Meena Kandasamy
  • Black Car Burning, Helen Mort
  • Virtuoso, Yelena Moskovich
  • Inland, Téa Obreht
  • Stubborn Archivist, Yara Rodrigues Fowler
  • If All the World and Love Were Young, Stephen Sexton
  • The Far Field, Madhuri Vijay
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
  • Lot, Bryan Washington