Book Review: Pig Iron

pig iron

“violence is a part of life”

Pig Iron, by Benjamin Myers, is possibly the most disturbing work of fiction I have ever read. The graphically described scenes of animal and child abuse are skilfully written – and fit with the story – but may not appeal to readers harbouring more delicate sensibilities. The tale being told is distressingly believable, presenting man at his most bestial. The cast of characters are: travellers, fairground workers, young people living on a northern sink estate in England. While much of their behaviour may be put down to circumstances and upbringing, few are depicted sympathetically.

There are two narrators – John-John Wisdom and his mother, Vancy. When the story opens, John-John has recently been released from a five year prison term. He is not yet, or only just, out of his teens. What unfolds is the young man’s life story and it is shadowed by violence. The travellers know they are mostly viewed with prejudiced contempt by those who live in the houses near where they camp. Their behaviour among themselves makes it difficult to consider them any more kindly.

Vancy married young, getting together with Mac Wisdom when she was barely fifteen. She fell for a handsome and physically strong suitor. Her parents recognised him as a braggard and bully.  Mac made money from bare knuckle fighting while Vancy stayed home in their caravan through multiple pregnancies. She suffered from his temper outbursts and beatings, as did their children.

John-John is now determined not to follow in his dad’s footsteps. He won’t touch drugs or alcohol and gets a job to enable him to save for his own caravan. He hates having to live in the flat his probation provides. Through a prison contact he is offered work driving an ice-cream van – being outdoors suits him, especially after his incarceration. The route he is required to follow takes him through a rough housing estate where feral kids get their kicks through vicious and upsetting cruelty.

“Stuff like that cuts us up. Especially animal stuff. Animals never asked to be dragged into the shite human world. Animals do just fine without us lot interfering.”

The estate is also home to Maria who is fascinated by John-John as he is so different to the lads she has always lived alongside. The local young men are into drugs and sex, supplying others as well as meeting their own base proclivities, the horrific descriptions of which are sickening to read. When they learn that John-John is a traveller they turn against him. After he bests their leader they attack by hurting what he cares for rather than him directly.

“It seems like a taste for vengeance is my only inheritance … It’s like reason can never beat violence. Violence always pushes through, like a weed through concrete. You only have to watch the daily news to see that.”

Vancy’s narrative lays bare how little she did to protect her children. She remained loyal to Mac, accepting his depravities because he was her husband, and travellers keep family business to themselves. As well as brutalising people, Mac takes his young son to watch him attack a helpless animal, claiming it will toughen him. The audience at this event show no hint of humanity. This scene still haunts me.

John-John dreams of getting back to the life some travellers used to live – seasonal work on farms or other physical outdoor labour. He longs to be left to himself but is also drawn to Maria. The modern world encroaches with its own take on poaching, fishing and protecting reputations.

“It’s still the ruthless, heartless animals that reign in this living hell. We’re all just savages. Beasts. And I’m sick of it”

The deeply upsetting imagery made this a tough read. Structure and tension retain engagement but the relentless barbarism cuts deep.

A searing depiction of life through the eyes of those existing on the margins. An impressive literary accomplishment but one that leaves a bitter aftertaste.

Pig Iron was first published in the UK by Bluemoose Books and is available to buy now from Bloomsbury.