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

16 thoughts on “Black Car Burning by Helen Mort – Dylan Thomas Prize Longlist Blogtour

  1. Thanks so much for this review of Black Car Burning, which I also loved, not least because it is set in my beloved home town of Sheffield and the beautiful Peak District just a stone’s throw away. And I loved the fact that many characters move in both places, as do many Sheffielders. Thanks also for alerting me to the Dylan Thomas Prize, which I’d heard of, but knew little about. I see that Exquisite Cadavers is also on the Longlist- I’m keen to read that, having admired When Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

    • I’m so pleased to hear you liked it too. She made me very curious to visit Sheffield and the Peak District some day. She really loves her city. The Dylan Thomas Prize Longlist is one of the most interesting I’ve come across. Most of the titles are great. Thanks for letting me know about Meena Kandasamy. Exquisite Cadvers tempted me too.

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  3. This does sound a strong contender for the prize. She took quite a risk with the story line – although the Hillborough tragedy had happened decades earlier its still a live topic. Only last year fresh charges were brought against the senior police officer in charge that day.

  4. I had heard very good things of this. The Hillsborough link had put me off slightly, not sure why, and perhaps it shouldn’t have. Strong review Caroline. Will you read any others on the list do you think?

    • I think I can see why that might put you off but it’s done in a way that makes it work. I suppose it’s a trauma that has affected Sheffield’s life deeply. The way she gives the landscape a voice is amazing. The poet shines through.
      Thank you, Max.
      I did read Kirsty Logan’s short story collection. It was my last review. Also strong. I don’t accept review copies these days but for the Dylan Thomas Prize I will. One of the best. It’s quite possible I’ll pick another one.

  5. This sounds wonderful, Caroline. I love those descriptions of trees, the old ones like church doors and the saplings like bicycle brakes on a wet day. So evocative! And I love the theme of the aftermath of trauma, both for the city and its people. I’ve always associated Hillsborough more with Liverpool because that’s where the fans who were killed were from, but of course it must have had a terrible impact in Sheffield. The title is a clever choice too—a rock to be climbed, but also giving associations of destruction and urban decay. I’ll look out for this one. Hope you and your loved ones are all doing OK amid the coronavirus crisis! Stay safe!

    • Hi Andrew, I think you would really like this. Especially the page long pages between the chapters are amazing. But the whole book is different, fresh, poignant. I think Sheffield must have been marked deep,y especially since it was always assumed this could have been prevented. I hadn’t even thought of the title like that but, of course, you’re totally right. I’m OK. Alone with the cats as my partner is stuck in the UK. His parents are at risk, so it made sense for him to stay there.And now he has to stay anyway. I hope you and yours are fine as well. Stay safe too.

      • Glad you’re OK, Caroline. I’m sorry to hear that you and your partner can’t be together right now. It’s always great to have cats for company, though 🙂 Yes, we’re all fine, thanks. The lockdown here in Belgrade is quite strict, but we have plenty of supplies and are just staying in and doing lots of work and reading. Feeling very fortunate, actually, when I see what so many other people are going through at the moment.

        • I’m so glad for you. Yes it’s terrible for many. In many ways. I haven’t heard of many cases in Serbia but then again they won’t be testing. But doing an early, strict lockdown helps prevent things. Wouldn’t want to be in the US or UK. So, I’m worried for my partner and, of course, we have no clue when he can come back.

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