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

Dylan Thomas Prize Longlist Blogtour – Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan

A few years ago, I read one of Kirsty Logan’s short stories and liked it very much. Since then, I wanted to read her again and when I saw her latest book on the Dylan Prize Longlist and was offered to read it, I didn’t hesitate.

Short story collections come in different forms. There are anthologies, best of or themed collections that contain mostly commissioned stories. When it comes to collections of single authors, they are just as diverse. Some authors write predominantly novels and novellas, but short stories here and there and, after a while, they are put together in a collection. Even those who write mostly or only short stories, will just collect a certain number of stories that have been published over the years. Cohesive, structured collections that form a whole and have been written with the whole book in mind, are far less frequent. Things We Say in the Dark belongs to the latter category. This is a highly conceptual collection. You could read individual stories, but reading them in this specific order and with all the bits and pieces that form this collection, makes this a rather unique experience.

The book is divided into three parts. There’s a quote at the beginning of every part that sets the tone. There’s also a dark drawing at the beginning, which also contributes to the tone. And there are the titles. Every one of the stories has a very long title. Here are a few examples

Things My Wife And I Found Hidden in Our House

The World’s More Full of Weeping Than You Can Understand

The Only Time I Think of You is All the Time

The first story of each part has sections called Fear 1, Fear 2, Fear 3 . . .

Between the stories you find page-long texts in italics that lead the reader to believe, the author is writing about the writing process. After a while though, it becomes obvious that this too, is a short story.

The stories themselves are mostly surreal and always with an element of horror. Sometimes the horror is leaning towards the uncanny, sometimes it’s more frightening, but it always leaves the reader with a sense of unease. The reality described in this collection is porous. It’s never clear whether the characters are dreaming or whether they are hallucinating. In some stories it’s not even clear whether the characters aren’t the only ones who see the world as it is. Dreams and nightmares are carried over into the day. Fears manifest.

The themes are varied but always contain similar elements. Ghosts want revenge, babies are born but somehow still dead. Women are attacked, raped, seduced against their will. Women are mudered. Houses are empty but seem to have a life of their own.

These are dark stories. And that made it difficult for me to read as it just went from horror to horror. It’s a claustrophobic, nightmarish world, mostly populated by lonely figures.

Nonetheless, there were many stories that I liked a great deal.

Things My Wife And I Found Hidden in Our House and The Only Time I Think of You is All the Time are two of the best. They are both mysterious ghost stories. The reader doesn’t know what’s going on until the very end and the final twists are very eerie.

I would lie if I said, I “liked” this collection, but I’m very grateful I read it because it’s fascinating. It made me think a lot about the way short story collections are produced. The way all the elements played together in this collection was marvellous and very artful.

Kirsty Logan has been compared to Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, and some others. I don’t agree with the comparison to Angela Carter as that would be reducing Carter to her themes and inspirations. Angela Carter’s language is one of the most sophisticated I know. Her vocabulary is huge. Kirsty Logan’s writing is much simpler. Carter’s world is far more colourful. If I had to compare Kirsty Logan, I’d rather compare her to Japanese author Yoko Ogawa, or the Austrian writer Alois Hotschnig. But maybe her first collection was very different.

 

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