Hillsborough is the weeping sore at the centre of Helen Mort’s debut novel Black Car Burning, which is also a love letter to her home city of Sheffield and to the climbing community of the Peak District that surrounds it. Mort, an award-winning poet whose 2013 debut collection Division Street contained a poem about the 1984-85 miners’ strike, is also a climber: her second collection No Map Could Show Them takes the radical female mountaineers of the 19th and early 20th century as its theme. Politics and landscape are fiercely intertwined in the history of South Yorkshire, and Mort now demonstrates that she can write as assuredly on both subjects in novel form as in her poetry.
Black Car Burning offers a number of resolutions, with relationships ending or undergoing renewal and repair, but it eschews high-vis neatness. It is frequently exhilarating in its accurate sympathy, with some inch-perfect dialogue and astute observation throughout. If the reader wonders about its literary affinities, perhaps surprisingly the name of D. H. Lawrence may come to mind – in Mort’s confidently unapologetic focus on the allegedly provincial; in the merging of people with place; in the sense of erotic compulsion as a kind of spiritual discontent; and by trusting to the tale that wants to be told. The book’s “untidiness” is part of its strength. Poet writes gripping novel: now there’s something you don’t hear every day.
Black Car Burning explores the ties that bind us: literally, while strung across a cliff face in high winds, or figuratively in the tenuous bonds that hold both relationships and communities together, and which we are all responsible for maintaining. It’s especially gratifying to inhabit a female-focused world within a climbing scene still partly defined by machismo and male bravado. Helen Mort’s writing is confident and compassionate and this is a mature and evocative debut.