Portico Prize Shortlist: ‘Ironopolis’

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Brown’s Ironopolis felt so cohesive and well-developed that it was hard to believe this was a debut novel. The experimental form was extremely unique and the bold plot should not necessarily have worked, but it really did.

At first I thought I’d struggle to follow the overarching plot with Brown’s chosen style and structure – given that the novels flits between various characters and times, as well as blending traditional narration perfectly with interview transcripts, but I needn’t have worried. It is written as a collection of short stories and, as such, I found it very difficult to put down. It was so easy to be consistently drawn in further by the next section and each narrative immersed me further in this community. 

Given the nature of the structure, it’s hard to summarise the plot of Ironopolis; the novel revolves around the demolition of the industrial Burn Estate over three generations of residents of the fictional housing estate in Middlesbrough – known locally as Ironopolis. It follows six narratives and various characters: letters written by Jean who is dying from cancer; Jim’s life during the 1989 raves; Una Cruickshank the artist; Vincent Barr, the villain of the estate; the hairdresser Corina Clarke’s battle with gambling addiction; and Alan who is still haunted by events of his past. 

stories combine to make a vivid and immersive mosaic of what seems to be a very real working class community

All of these stories combine to make a vivid and immersive mosaic of what seems to be a very real working class community. All of the characters interlink and reappear at different points in the story from various perspectives so the reader is able to build a rich and lively world around these threads. There is a real sense that these characters are authentic, tangible individuals and, as the reader, we uncover generational secrets of this industrial estate alongside them.

Mingled throughout these realistic stories, Brown interestingly chose to introduce the supernatural figure of Peg Powler. All of the characters have a disturbing story to tell about Peg, an intriguing way Brown managed to keep these seemingly very different characters rooted to his novel. This magical entity is a real Teeside urban legend, who haunts the sewers of the estate and lures characters to the well. The figure of Peg adds an element of horror and Magic Realism which I wasn’t expecting from this book but this added a rather enticing aspect.

the characters’ experiences may be far from my own reality, but their memories really began to feel like my own

The novel should feel bleak, but, surprisingly, I felt myself consistently drawn in by the warmth and depth of each of the characters. Not all of them were necessarily likeable, but each was grounded in a very tangible realism which gave the book a remarkable level of intimacy. Brown’s observational abilities meant I found a heightened sense of presence and reality within the book; the characters’ experiences may be far from my own reality, but their memories really began to feel like my own. This was quite an emotional read, with raw and tragic aspects like Jim Clarke’s experience of the shallow Acid House scene in the 1980s, but Brown also managed to maintain a level of dark humour and optimism throughout.

Ironopolis showcases Brown’s exceptional ability to tell a story, gives a voice to stories which aren’t normally told, and is a real testament to the spirit of the North.

The Portico Prize awards £10,000 to the book that best evokes the spirit of the North of England. Palatinate is reviewing the shortlist and a winner will be announced on 23rd January 2020.

Photograph: Roelf Bruinsma via Unsplash

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