Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: April (I)

Wendy Erskine | 2nd April 2019

Black Car Burning, the debut novel from Helen Mort, is our first of two Books of the Month for April. Wendy Erskine reviews:

So what’s Black Car Burning then? It’s not something left over from a riot. It’s the name of a difficult climb in Stanage in the Peak District, an arduous and steep route, with ‘poor handholds under a great gritstone roof.’ Caron, a skilled climber, who is able to ‘stretch out of her own skin’, is intent on scaling Black Car Burning. She is aided in this by Leigh, who works in a local climbing gear shop. She belays Caron, applying and removing tension to her climbing rope. Belaying’s an art. But for Leigh it also involves the transmission of feeling: ‘the rope was taut with everything that was between you.’ And she wonders what travels through the rope she holds as Caron climbs.

One of Caron’s sexual partners is Alexa, a community police support officer. Her terrain, rather than climbs and quarries, is Sheffield: its streets and estates. Alexa deals with missing children, English Defence League protests, trouble between disparate communities, people on the brink of suicide. Her job is fraught and fairly thankless. Alexa confides to a colleague that she just can’t stop having nightmares. ‘You and the rest of South Yorkshire,’ her co-worker replies.

And then there is the ex-police officer, haunted by what he experienced on the day of the Hillsborough disaster. In the library he chooses the computer in a booth on its own; he thinks that people probably reckon he is looking at porn but he is reading again the public access police statements and details of the inquest. It is impossible to forget: a lad on a bus glances at him and suddenly ‘the years collaps[e] the day cave[s] in. I can’t reach you. I can’t get to you.’

Mort skilfully, attentively, moves between the different perspectives of the ex-police officer, Leigh and Alexa, as their lives intersect and coalesce. But she also presents another crucial voice and that is of the landscape itself. Alright, confession. I have for the length of time I have been reading books skipped with impunity passages to do with descriptions of places, be they forests, seascapes, deserts or city boulevards. Nothing too much suffers, I feel, from me jumping the paragraphs and just supplying my own sketchy idea of a generic mountain. Not so with this novel. Not so. Here the physical world articulates itself in the most remarkable ways and in this inversion of psychogeography the varied voices of place are distinctive and totally compelling. Redmires is inviting – ‘Come and sit by me and skim your thoughts like pebbles across my skin’ – while Hathersage, although it doesn’t really mind the day-trippers and tea-shops, wants to be roughed up – ‘I want the wind to batter me so hard my stone houses start to creak.’ Ladybower Quarry is impassive, unconcerned when someone falls, Wharncliffe feels patient and calm when it feels a man grip down and start to climb. The intimacy of connection between the individual and nature is acknowledged by The River at Froggatt: ‘When you enter me, I enter you and it’s glorious.’

Black Car Burning deals with epic space, tiny figures pitted against vast expanses of rock and sky. But there’s also a constant insistence on how it is when people are tight up close to each other – others’ bodies, others’ smells – in bars, in tents, in crowds. Alexa remembers a packed underground
train with ‘armpits and bellies’ everywhere and ‘forests of legs’, everything smelling of ‘beer and warmth and new sweat.’ In a brilliantly drawn scene, the ex-police officer ends up back for the night at a flat that smells stale and sickly, a flat with a ‘bruise-coloured sofa.’ It belongs to Sandra, the pub landlady who, in the right light, looks like Stevie Nicks. The ex-police officer recalls how there are mornings where he has no recollection of what happened the night before, and this is something to be celebrated: ‘He was never afraid when he woke up and couldn’t recall anything…There were days and months he’d give anything to get rid of.’ The landlady and he smoke a joint, talk a little about Jimi Hendrix. And then she reveals that when she was cutting up some vegetables her ex-husband, angry at the sound she was making, pinned her against the oven, the knife against her cheek. She could see that the blade of the knife was ‘orange at the end, glistening’ because she’d just started cutting a pepper. Her conclusion is that you never can be sure about anyone: ‘You can live with them for twenty years and you know what they like doing, know what they sound like in the house and what they think about things. But there’s always summat, isn’t there?’

This night back at the flat distils several of Mort’s concerns in Black Car Burning. Physical proximity here is matched with mental distance and people’s essential unknowability. Elsewhere in the novel Alexa queries why anyone should trust another person: ‘What made it so natural? You gave your word…And that was meant to be enough…Across a pitch of rock. Or a room, a bed.’ Who do we ever truly know? Our work-colleague? Our father? Our daughter? The person lying next to us? So much, Mort suggests, is left unsaid, or is deliberately withheld. Leigh considers how there are so many
secrets ‘to turn over in your mind at night, run your tongue around their invisible shape, stow under your pillow.’

In this episode as throughout this layered and watchful novel, the stuff of people’s lives – trivial, quotidian, messy, painful – is rendered with the imaginative precision and poise that you might expect from a poet of Mort’s calibre. See someone drag a duvet down the stairs like it’s a bridal train. Watch the weather of someone’s face change. Notice the moon, ‘a wound in the clouds, an incredulous mouth, the sky around it seeping.’ Know that people will fall, will fail – but will still trust, probably.


Black Car Burning is published by Chatto & Windus on 4th April. Order your copy here.

Helen will discuss Black Car Burning with Anna Wood on our stage at this year’s Good Life Experience. More details here.