Pat Barker 1943–
Barker has gained prominence for her two novels of industrial England, Union Street (1982) and Blow Your House Down (1984). The first portrays the lives of seven working-class women in England's economically depressed northeast, an area not unlike that in which Barker herself was raised. Abandoning the traditional structure of the novel, Barker used a technique which she referred to as the "compound-eye approach" because each of the women narrates her own story yet all the stories are interconnected. Her second novel also focuses on a working-class community in which a group of prostitutes are victimized by a series of Jack-the-Ripper-type murders. Katha Pollitt says of both books: "Mrs. Barker is able to see her characters from within, as they see themselves, and thereby reveals [their] full individuality and humanity."
Being hailed as "Lawrentian" might thrill some new writers, but not Pat Barker…. [Her novel may be] the latest, long over-due working-class masterpiece, but its story and sympathies are firmly based on the lives of working-class women, not men. And for that, as Barker ruefully says, there is next to no literary tradition.
It was Angela Carter who recognised the talent and singularity of Barker's writing, and helped nurse Union Street into life. Prejudice about working-class and feminist writing being what it is, however, it is perhaps necessary to say immediately what Barker's book isn't: two-dimensional, self-indulgent, propagandistic, or blood-soaked eeh-bah-gum realism. Summed up as the story of seven women living on the same street in the North East during the 1973 miners' strike, it may sound drab. But Union Street is beautifully written and not worthy of attention only as a didn't-she-do-well adjunct to the male, bourgeois body of 'real' literature. Through language which is both authentically working class and poetic, Pat Barker deals with universals.
Here, however, love and marital conflict, loneliness and fear of death, are shown in far sharper relief than in more polite novels. For the experience and emotions of Barker's characters are over-laid with the desperation of poverty and the constrictions of being female. They are 'the working class within the working class': the unsupported mother, the old, the family living on female wages, the long-term unemployed. They endure the kind of penny-pinching, slum existence which, says the author, Tories, southerners and 'even some trade unionists' would prefer to believe ended 50 years ago. From experience, Pat Barker knows otherwise….
That Union Street is written from the 'inside' should, however, be obvious from the very first page.Where well-meaning slummers like Orwell or Nell Dunn might have us gawp at a delinquent child, or sluttish mother, Barker forces us to become them. Each character is unequivocally evoked from within their own point of view. Achieving this intimate, dignified focus was not easy....
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The seven narratives of Pat Barker's Union Street are … solidly linked. Each deals with a woman living in an English working-class city street in the North East, during the winter of the miner's strike….
No grim detail is avoided …, and no idiom goes unnoted…. An authorial voice, which speaks of 'stoicism' and 'horror,' makes sure we are moved. The result is a serious, well-meant, gripping set of case-histories, but not a novel.
Hermione Lee, "At Spaghetti Junction," in The Observer, May 30, 1982, p. 31.∗
[Union Street] is lost in that sometimes interesting but always dangerous area that looms invitingly between literature and the social worker's casebook. Although direct echoes of Lawrence's Sons and Lovers and Dickens's Our Mutual Friend find their way into the composition, and a vision of plain women as heroic stoics reminiscent of Gertrude Stein in Three Lives dominates the thought behind the novel, the reader is left with the uneasy feeling that the author is not quite comfortable with fiction as the appropriate milieu for her enterprise. The result is a heavily 'committed' version of the seven ages of women embedded in a portrait of a working-class street in a North of England industrial city in the 1970s.
Each of the seven representative women is allotted a section of her own, but the separate stories interlock and all contribute to the overall themes of inevitable suffering and unremarked endurance as the hallmarks of female and proletarian experience. The book is drenched in (mostly women's) blood and grounded in the paradox of fecundity that both degrades the characters and makes their lives worth living. The stories themselves are hard-hitting and painful…. The narrative moves in a full circle emphasized by the supportive contact made between the youngest woman and the oldest. Union Street, a moving celebration of 'union' indeed, is compulsive reading despite its flaws.
Kate Fullbrook, in a review of "Union Street," in British Book News, October, 1982, p. 640.
Pat Barker achieves immediate distinction with Union Street. Into the jaded, overcrowded, imitative world of first novels she has introduced a book that is at once mature, faultlessly constructed, and daring enough to take as its subject life itself in the most elemental sense: poverty, sexuality, rape, pregnancy, abortion, marriage, birth, sickness, prostitution, decrepitude and death, all interlocking. Where a less gifted writer might have fallen headlong here into the double trap of stridency and mawkishness, Pat Barker keeps her story so free of abstract moralizing that its final effect is close to visionary. (p. 3)
The book's vision, if it is a vision, is of a life brutal and scabrous in the extreme. Lives such as these, it seems to say, would be falsified by the modesty of literary circumlocution. So the material is almost unremittingly sensational. Certainly, if you are not shocked by the marvelously frank speech, the frequent exposure of genitalia (with varying degrees of distaste), or the spattering of excrement and sperm and phlegm, you will be shocked by the abuse of children, old people, simple girls and deformed men—that is, the systematic creation of victims—which, the book suggests, this depressed life will breed. A great part of Union Street's strength lies in its completely unsentimental characterization of the English working classes.
And yet, miraculously, Pat Barker also sees in each of these seven lives a flicker of affirmation or, in a theological sense which she does not at all press, salvation. There are two ways in which this spirit of hope is sustained throughout the book. One is the irrepressible humor which keeps bobbing to the surface of each grim life. (pp. 3-4)
Pat Barker's Union Street is a singularly powerful achievement. On the evidence of this one book, her most promising quality is, perhaps, the unusual combination of a strictly naturalistic style with a genuinely poetic sensibility. (p. 4)
Elizabeth Ward, "On the Seamy Side of the Street," in Book World—The Washington Post, September 18, 1983, pp. 3-4.
[Union Street] is a product of the grim wasteland of England's industrial northeast. It is the hard winter of 1973; a miner's strike amplifies a landscape of gray drizzle, physical and spiritual impoverishment. Against this background seven women enact their individual rites of passage…. When it was published in Britain it was called feminist, proletarian, socialist-realist; Lawrencian, Osbornian, Sillitoe-esque…. There are those who've found it too grim and gritty, and those who've called it "the undiluted gospel of the distaff side."
But Pat Barker's work sits squarely in the tradition of Willa Cather…. Barker's working-class world of shabby, burnt-out buildings and daily work in the cake factory calls to mind the arid, provincial small towns of Willa Cather's shoreless plains, the "iron country" from which there is no escape….
Union Street reaches into human truths that are older than the sad historical milieu in which they are acted out; these women's lives are not wasted in history. They are, rather, gathered up in images of startling intimacy and concreteness….
Union Street, written in prose that is spare, transparent, exacting, redeems and salvages the lives of these women, who are simultaneously specific, real, and Everywoman. Pat Barker's creative vision is as in touch with the psychologically primordial as Melville's; she might have entitled her book Moby-Jane.
Jeffrey Schaire, in a review of "Union Street," in Harper's, Vol. 267, No. 1602, October, 1983, p. 76.
["Union Street"] is set in the early 1970's in an unnamed city in England's industrial Northeast. The impoverished, grimy town has two basic industries: the steelworks, from which the men are frequently furloughed or prematurely retired, and the cake factory, where many of the women work or have worked. Miss Barker skillfully employs the factory setting to touch on matters like automation, race prejudice, feeblemindedness and the sheer human hardship experienced by some of those trapped on the assembly line….
Her novel is divided into seven sections, each named for a particular female….
Together, the seven sections explore every permutation and nuance (both within and outside...
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Barker's characters may sound less like material for serious drama than a shelfload of case histories, but Barker details the particularities of each life so richly and carefully that she cannot be mistaken for either a dry sociologist or a sentimental reporter. Some readers may object that Barker has made her characters laugh with such bitter humor, that one cannot help but yearn for some illusion of a possible escape.
But her vision is as unremitting as the world she describes, and her hard, spare prose is as chilling. Of Alice's final struggle she writes: "In the ruins of her mind, something so new and unused that it could only be spirit was struggling to stand up. Oh, but it was hard. She could...
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Barker has the rare ability to communicate the physical, to make one feel her characters living, feel "the blood squeezing through [their] veins" in the way that Lawrence wanted for his own characters. Her first book [Union Street] is an almost hellish cycle of seven stories about the working-class women who live along the Union Street of the title, in an unnamed city in the North of England. But sex is more important than class here. Barker writes about a crucial stage in the life of a different woman in each story. But she uses the woman's experience to embody a segment of the collective experience of the sex as a whole, from childhood to old age, producing a feminine version of Marcel Marceau's pantomime in...
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Blow Your House Down lacks, I think, both spirit and direction. It is set in the industrial North where a series of murders similar to those by the Ripper are being carried out. The novel traces the responses of those women who feel most under threat. It's 'gritty', 'tough' and 'hard-hitting' in the tradition of much British Sixties realist writing. Barker certainly avoids patronising the women she describes. They are, without exception, poor, and prostitution is better paid than the only other work available—gutting chickens in a local factory.
There are two problems with the book. First that to attract the attention of the reader Barker, is forced to go along partially with the conventions...
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An ocean away from the fights of early '80s British feminism, I found [Union Street] direct, subtle, and devastating. If the feminist overview was occasionally routine, the undertaking itself was far from it, and the tone far from obvious. Barker was sympathetic, but as she tallied the willingness of woman after woman to let fate make decisions, to play by the rules of class as well as society—never to complain, never to ask for help, never to leave—there were flashes of frustration, of impatience, even anger. She didn't patronize: she credited her subjects with the ability to reason, to choose, to change, and when they didn't, she sometimes lost her temper like a real sister. I thought that was honest....
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Pat Barker's extraordinary first novel, "Union Street," deserved every bit of the high praise heaped on it…. Set in England's grim and grimy Northeast, its seven loosely linked chapters offer a vision of working-class women's lives that is mordant, heartbreaking and—at least to my knowledge—unique…. Delicately and compassionately, Mrs. Barker caught the central contradiction of her heroines' lives, which is that they believe in female inferiority while being themselves far stronger than their menfolk, and derive their sense of worth from keeping up a front of brisk respectability that divides them from each other.
"Blow Your House Down" is set in the same part of England as "Union...
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