BOOK REVIEW: Ironopolis by Glen James Brown

I’m not too sure what I expected with Ironopolis…but it wasn’t this, no preamble just straight in to the heart and message of this wonderful offering from Glen James Brown and Parthian Books. It is not a book I would naturally be drawn to reading…but drawn I was, like a wasp to a jam sandwich!

Ironopolis is a collection of stories about a community in Middlesbrough – The Burns Estate – which is due to be demolished. The book is made up of a cross section of letters and narratives which blend terrifically well, with each piece of writing lending to the overall aesthetic of Brown’s mosaic depictions of life in Ironopolis – a glorious piece of brave and unique literary writing. It is an ingenious angle for the author to implement and execute so well. A key to this is the varying viewpoints and characters that interlink with one another at different times of their lives – making the whole book have a real readability factor and a thread that runs through its pages making subtle links as the reader progresses through this wonderful work.

Ironopolis shows raw northern life in the 1990s from different perspectives in a realistic and emotional way, it was hilarious, whilst also being tragic and sad. Glen Brown’s observations show how change in societal living started to affect the break-up of close extended families – with the promise of a new improved lifestyles, promises of a better life, but they would have to move away from their family roots and take residency in ‘new build estates’.

It starts with letters being written by Jean about herself as a young girl, her then best friend Una and their life on the estate. Jean is corresponding to someone about Una in particular – but the reader only has her letters as a guide. These at times are bleak, but show the true essence of a working class community in the time that Brown writes in. It is not clear who she is writing to – administrator, executor or relative! Her letters show the 1990s social history, the decline in employment but strong bonds and relationships with a close community groups at the centre of peoples lives.

Then we are treated to a change of pace with Jim, which is a very real tale with no embellishment. Jim has a different story of hardship which Brown captures with humour, showing the experimentation and exposure to Acid music, drugs, sex and the prospect of money and a better way of life outside of Middlesbrough.

Vincent is the ring leader of the estate; he is a man who has an impact throughout the community and individuals lives – his relationships and behaviours having lasting effects on many. It shows the everyday hierarchy of the community and to some extent self-rule! Alan is Vincent’s son, who has lived under his father’s shadow; he looks back at his life and describes how he still lives in the eerie empty estate after many have left.

Brown’s writing is so intricate and written in a brave ‘bare bones‘ kind of way that you are easily immersed into the lives of these characters. Brown has created an extraordinary book which catches the essence of massive social change in Northern Britain particularly in the early 1990s –  and he should be commended for producing such a thought provoking and deep piece of fiction which at times is so real you have to repeat to yourself – this is fiction! Brown creates a cast of realistic characters that can easily be recognised and it is intriguing how myth and reality easily merge. Ironopolis is written with clarity and humour, which at times made me laugh aloud.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book, but I found myself immersed completely and at the end I went back and re-read bits which is very unusual for me! This book also stayed with me for a long while after I had finished it, showing what a rich and talented writer Glen Brown is – he made me care and what better gift can there be for a writer to leave the reader.

It shows the good, the bad and the ugly side of humanity, set within the boundaries of a generation – many readers will be able to remember and relate.

An ingenious and entertaining way to write and an excellent debut novel – with Ironopolis Brown has set a benchmark for his future work, and it will be interesting to see what he does next!

Ironopolis is published by Parthian Books and is available here.

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Glen James Brown

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Glen James Brown was born in County Durham in 1982 and studied English at Leeds Becketts University. In 2013 he won an AHRC scholarship to study for an M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester, where he graduated with distinction and the Kate Betts Memorial Award. Ironopolis is his first novel. He lives in Manchester.

Reviewed by Amanda Brightman 

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