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Book review Iron in the soul of a great working-class novel

Ironopolis
by Glen James Brown
(Parthian £8.99)

BY ANY measure, Ironopolis is an extraordinary novel. Glen James Brown’s debut work is breathtaking in its ambition and delivery.

Employing the testimonies of six different people living on a Middlesbrough estate and using a range of voices and letters, the author meshes together their shared histories over a number of decades.

In so doing, Brown exposes the loyalties and antagonisms that lie within the infrastructure of any working-class community –— the veins that keep it alive.

The style, predominantly social realist, is at times uncompromising and often bleak in recording the injustices and ill-luck heaped upon the protagonists. Jean Barr, dying of cancer, records her childhood friendship with an enigmatic local artist whose work is heavily influenced by the estate’s abandoned iron works and underground drainage system.

Jim Clarke, his body and mind smashed, struggles to recall the exhilarating acid raves of his teen years, while Frank and Scott Hulme recall the humiliations heaped on them by hard-man Vincent, husband of Jean and father of Alan, his peaceful and pedestrian son.

This is certainly a society at the front line of the class struggle, however unwittingly. The Burn estate, built on the site of a slum, is itself now being run down and dismantled to make way for a new housing association, keen to profit from the tenants’ increasing desperation and powerlessness.

The tower blocks are named — almost mockingly — after long-dead and far-distant prime ministers such as Asquith, Attlee and Palmerston. Peel block has been taken over by an alternative community trying to breathe life back into the society but viewed with suspicion by longer-standing residents.

The unseen protagonists in Brown’s novel are those distant and uncaring public-sector landlords who bear responsibility for the dilapidated tower blocks. One bureaucratic decision — the transfer of the housing stock — shapes the trajectories of many of the characters’ lives. Yet Ironopolis also records the resilience and solidarity that ensures that most residents, whatever has befallen them, do not want to be shipped out and away by the housing association.

Underpinning the novel’s social realism is an element of the magical kind — the spectral presence of Peg Powler, a bogey figure inhabiting the underground tunnels nearby. Yet that presence does not detract from Brown’s predominant style — Powler is in many respects a metaphor of, and repository for, the community’s historical and present struggles.

The author is a master of the almost incidental, but always memorable, descriptive one-liner. These verbal explosions are never contrived but always enrich the reader’s appreciation of the characters.

The most accomplished working-class novel of the last few years.

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