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The Burn Council Estate in Middlesbrough is being demolished. Row upon row of council housing succumbing to the bulldozers of the Rowan Tree developers. And as the concrete nibblers close in, secret history starts to emerge. 

Once upon a time, Middlesbrough was Ironopolis, the steel and iron manufacturing centre of the kingdom. And a long time before that, the River Tees was the home of Peg Powler, a supernatural hag who lured children to their deaths. More recently, the Burn estate was terrorised by Vincent Barr, the villain with a finger in every pie. 

In Ironopolis, six discrete sections bring Vincent to life, along with those whose lives were touched by him and by those around him. We see waves spreading out through society, violent, gruesome waves. Also waves of love, hope, fear, loneliness. The novel is complex in structure, including letters, interviews, footnotes, autobiography and editorial. Each section sheds a new light on previous sections; characters who are the heroes of one section may be the villains of another. The pacing is perfect, and new revelations keep coming right up to the death. The various narrative voices are well defined, often moving and really hard to put down. Whether it is Jean Barr writing letters to an unseen man about a childhood friend; or the story of a young man discovering acid house raves; or a hairdresser with a gambling problem; they are all so different yet add up to a coherent whole. 

The title is perhaps ambitious. The novel doesn't really give a story of the city, but it does give a detailed slice of life over several decades of a select group of people in a select part of the city. In truth, though, and despite the many references to Peg Powler, there is a feeling that this might have taken place in any estate, anywhere in England. But it is a damn good story; the characters and locations feel real; and the changing social values ring true. 

Ironopolis really is an exceptional book, more accessible than the blurb might lead a reader to expect, but still with many layers of complexity.

 

*****

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