(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In Union Street, Pat Barker builds a grimly realistic picture of daily drudgery and hardship among women living on a run-down street of cramped, substandard houses in one of the most depressed neighborhoods of an industrial city in northeastern England. The book has seven interrelated parts, each of which is centered on the story of a girl or woman during a major crisis in her life.

Eleven-year-old Kelly Brown and her teenage sister Linda come from the poorest, dirtiest, and most gossiped-about family in the street. Their father has left home. Their slatternly mother goes out drinking most evenings, and at various times she has brought home different men to live with them.

Kelly meets a stranger in the park. Although she is suspicious of his advances, she is also sympathetic to him; she associates him in her mind with her father, whom she sorely misses. On a subsequent meeting, the stranger traps her in a blind alley and rapes her. Despite her pain and shock, Kelly blackmails him into taking her to a fish-and-chips shop for supper. She is devastated when he breaks down and cries. After bottling up her emotions for three weeks, she has a sudden fit of screaming which alerts her mother to her sufferings.

In an attempt to cope with her enforced sexual maturity, Kelly wanders around the streets at night, talking to the most wretched and downtrodden women, and defiantly indulges in minor acts of vandalism. An encounter in the park with an elderly woman who is desperately ill helps her to come to terms with herself.

Joanne Wilson, an eighteen-year-old bakery worker, is pregnant. Her mother is furious, and she dreads having to tell her boyfriend, Ken, who is temporarily away. She wants more out of life than that promised by a hasty marriage. Her emotional stress is heightened by some trouble at the...

(The entire section is 758 words.)