Pig Iron – Benjamin Myers

The thing with camping abroad when you take all your own stuff is that you can only carry the essentials, and unfortunately books take up precious space.  Mr Fictionhabit and I make sure we take a small selection and share them.  Luckily we weren’t as badly off as a Dutch camper we got friendly with who had to leave his copy of Steve Jobs’ biography at home because he literally had no more room in his car.  Mind you, it is a heavyweight tome.  One of the books Mr Fictionhabit added to our selection was Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers.  He’d read a review in the Guardian and having read another BlueMoose book, King Crow by Michael Stewart last year, he decided to buy it.  I read the review and was interested in the book when it arrived, but my to-be-read pile was so backed up I thought I probably wouldn’t get to it.  Racing through the two books I chose to take with us to France, I was very chuffed to settle down in my camping chair with Pig Iron.  

The first thing that strikes you about this books is the cover.  The photography is stunning, striking and bleak.  The bleakness of the cover image is certainly prophetic of what you find within.  There are stark points in this story, but there is also humanity and moments of tenderness that make your heart ache.

John John Wisdom is a young man from a travelling family trying to distance himself from his violent past and the legacy left by his bare-knuckle fighting father.  Despite his ordeals, he is likable, relatively level-headed although a little naive.  He is an outsider to his own kind because of something he did and he is an outsider to others because they think he is weird.  He is not at ease in other people’s company, but he comes alive in his”green cathedral,” the countryside where he can be himself.

“Cos like wherever I gan there’s people and bairns and buses and concrete and music and pissheads and smackheads and people dealing and people chorring and people fighting.  And they’re all bloody hassling us all the time.  But there’s none of that here..”

Despite getting a job, falling in love with a local Durham girl and trying to keep his head down, he can’t shake his past or who he is.  Trouble follows him.

In Pig Iron Myers has created a character so utterly convincing (at least to this white, middle class, home counties dweller) with a distinctive voice of Durham/Traveller vernacular, and a plot so engaging, that it is compulsive reading (imagine headtorch in the dark).  There were times when I winced, when I had to shut the pages, take a deep breath before continuing, because it is violent in places; one part in particular is nasty and there is a Lord of the Flies type episode which is anxiety inducing.  The graphic descriptions of violence are however totally necessary to underline the viciousness surrounding John John Wisdom’s childhood and the generations before him.  It is seat-of-your-pants stuff, I felt something awful might happen any moment and hoped it wouldn’t, because I cared about what happened to John John Wisdom.  That’s when you know you’ve been moved by writing.

If you are after refreshing, original writing, I urge you to seek out this book, it is compelling and will reward you long after you have read the last word.

PS Pig Iron has been short listed for the Guardian Not the Booker prize.  Look out to see if it wins here.

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