‘Black Ice’ by James Clarke

I was a big fan of Clarke’s first novel The Litten Path – about the Miners’ Strike and the Battle of Orgreave – and was blown away when he managed to follow it up with a book of this quality. It’s a collection of interconnected shorts set in a valley (the titular hollow in the land) in rural Lancashire, packed with petty local politics and stories about the kind of lives that people who’ve never lived in that kind of environment are blissfully unaware of. It was hard to pick a highlight from here, but this one’s probably my favourite. In it, Benj returns to his hometown after a few years away, some of them having been spent in prison after he crashes a car on the way back from a rave. 

Benj had coughed his gum out, while Al Pinder, Tez, and Pete gasped in the back. Pete held a nose broken so badly that he looked like a different person. Holly Lomax wept against the airbag in the front seat. As the youngest member of the party, Tim had been in the boot. Our Kid, the flowers decreed up the interior window of the hearse in its corsage, two weeks later.

The scene in the pub where he’s confronted by Tim’s mum, who’s dissolved into alcoholic despair, unable to move on, is beautifully rendered. Benj ends up going home drunk with Dani, an old friend recently widowed after her husband died in an accident at the paper mill, the grim presence of which casts a shadow over the whole town in more than one of these tales, and what follows shows how easily lives can slide away from us in ways far beyond our control. 

The closing paragraph and the last line in particular is one of those magical endings where you’re left hanging, frozen in an instant in which all time collapses, and it’s pulled off with such skill you can only stand back and applaud. He has a terrific eye for detail and the subtleties of the relationships between his characters, and the prose is pretty much flawless. He’s yet another writer from this list who has a great ear for dialogue, which is hugely important in capturing the feel of the valley and its inhabitants. I grew up across the border in Yorkshire in an environment just like this one, not far from where these stories take place, so towns like Todmorden and Rawtenstall are places I know well and many of these stories and the characters are achingly familiar as a result. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

First published in The Hollow in the Land, Serpent’s Tail, 2020