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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."
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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. Sensitivity to Bernstein's theories about the working class's 'restricted code' meant, says Pat, 'that without meaning to, I kept undermining my characters by slipping into middle-class style language and distanced observation.'
With the encouragement of Angela Carter, she recovered from this failure of nerve, and ditched all her 'genteel qualifications' in favour of unimpeded, vivid dialogue, imagery and inner narration. Carter also gave Pat Barker the confidence to return Union Street to its first, highly original form—less that of a conventional novel than of a cycle of interwoven stories. The characters in each one are, 'autonomous, but inter-connected, being alternately seen through their own then others' eyes.' Barker calls this illuminating switching of focus 'the compound eye approach. For just as insects' eyes have many different lenses so must a writer.'
In not having one central character who insistently dwarfs all the others, Union Street is a refreshing departure from the semi-autobiographical, self-pitying novels of many working-class men and middle-class feminists. Barker also consciously avoided making her male characters 'cardboard cut-out baddies, as in so much feminist fiction'. Thus, when a man who feels humiliated by retirement and unloved by his family goes off with an ageing, drunken prostitute, we empathise with his loneliness—even if, in the next story, we learn how much it is of his own making. D. H. Lawrence, Pat Barker notes, alternately understands then rages against the 'male-excluding' bonds between working-class women and their children. In Union Street, she unambivalently portrays these as 'a survival mechanism: not a matriarchal plot, but an inevitability in the face of male indifference, selfishness and often brutality'.
In literature, Pat Barker could find almost no record of 'this tradition of courage and endurance among ordinary working-class women.' (p. 21)
Pat Barker is not so much proud as sad to be among the first to record such lives. (p. 22)
Having a tradition matters, she says, because the absence of one implies that your subject matter is itself insignificant. How much more difficult then to muster the mad dashes of confidence which every writer needs in order to believe in their right to say, 'Hey, world—listen to me!' How many working-class women's voices have been silenced not just by poverty and over-work, but by the patriarchal censorship which parades as 'impartial' art criticism?
While she was writing Union Street, she felt continually inhibited by the fear that her raw portrayal of sexual and economic oppression would result in her being 'dismissed, politely, as a liar'. Certainly, one fairly typical rejection letter from a male publisher told her to 'Cheer up—life really isn't so depressing'.
What one man finds depressing, another (woman?) may find moving and liberating when expressed. (pp. 22-3)
The story is not 'merely' or gratuitously gynaecological, but is actually about a kind of love and heroism which male writers have rarely recognised.
[A] lack of bitterness characterises Union Street…. Pat Barker does 'look back in anger', but her vision is such that she also illuminates what should be recognised as universals of the human condition—'even' if her characters are of a class and sex normally deemed irrelevant to art. Union Street is a painful read, but for that there should be no apologies. (p. 23)
Eileen Fairweather, "The Voices of Women," in New Statesman, Vol. 103, No. 2669, May 14, 1982, pp. 21-3.
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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.∗
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[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.
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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.
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[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.
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["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 the desperate social milieu that is this author's artistic capital) of growing up, growing old, making do, making a living, having babies, raising children, absorbing grief, loving someone or hating where you are meant to love. Scores of characters, apart from the seven women named, spring vibrantly to life: their suitors, parents, siblings, husbands, children, their doctors and nurses and neighbors, as well as the denizens of the streets a cut above Union Street or a cut below. The seven women move easily and resonantly in and out of one another's lives and stories.
This is a hoary fictional technique. John Dos Passos' "U.S.A." comes quickly to mind, as does (for an American equivalent to the grinding, desperate poverty) the fiction of Harriette Arnow. Yet Miss Barker is equally capable of brilliantly bending the technical rules. Having situated us more or less comfortably in the head of Muriel Scaife, whose sickly young husband is about to die, she veers with great effect into the inner life of 12-year-old Richard Scaife, who will soon be dealing with the loss of the father he never really had. At the end of this story there is a scene in which Miss Barker manages to convey, with stunning economy and skill, the ineffable communion between bereaved wife and bereaved son.
Her gifts are equally in evidence in "Lisa Goddard," in which the harried mother of two young sons miserably awaits the birth of her third child, unwanted and overdue…. Here Miss Barker's magic lies in showing us how Lisa Goddard falls in love with her newborn daughter before they ever leave the hospital; you have to read it to believe it. (p. 9)
Miss Barker's pungent, raunchy North Country dialogue and her exact use of obscure words and neologisms, like a man's cheeks juddering while he sleeps, or the scrumpling of a newspaper for a fire, or an old woman's muculent eyes, alternate with passages of fine understated wit…. All in all, Pat Barker gives the sense of a writer who has enormous power that she has scarcely had to tap to write a first-rate first novel. (p. 27)
Ivan Gold, "North Country Women," in The New York Times Book Review, October 2, 1983, pp. 9, 27.
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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 not sustain the effort. She fell back, she dwindled, became again a heap of old garbage waiting for the pit. She preferred it like that. She turned to darkness and away from light."
Union Street provides no happy endings, no place of refuge. Out of grim reality, Pat Barker has crafted a splendid novel of the British working class.
Diane Cole, "Great Expectations," in Ms., Vol. XII, No. 7, January, 1984, pp. 12, 14-15.∗
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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 the process, whose effect is intensified by the fact that each of the women knows the other six, and appears in their stories as well as her own. Barker's characters are dominated by biology, by the sheer fact of being female. Their relations with men are essentially violent, for both men and women in Union Street lack an adequate emotional language and so despise one another, turning physical life into an indignity in the process. (p. 154)
Barker's sense of physical violence at the core of everyday life seems to me too strong, too obsessive to proceed from any political position. It is so honestly come by that for me the inextricability of sex and violence in Union Street is harrowing rather than morbid. Union Street is too relentless for one to be "happy" while reading it. But something in me both likes and admires Barker's ability to move and appall me…. (p. 155)
Michael Gorra, "Laughter and Bloodshed," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 151-64.
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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 of the thriller. Much of the writing orbits around the death of two women from within the community. This means that the same old atmospherics have to be conjured up, the darkened street and the vulnerable lonely figure tottering along in high heels. As though to counteract this Barker has one of her characters stab the main suspect. But I'm not sure this works. What more can be done with the image of the prostitute? From Walter Benjamin to Martin Scorsese she has been a figure who represents a challenge to the hypocrisies of conventional sexual morality, but always she is punished: possibly because in one sense she also challenges the men themselves. For women it's a different matter. Prostitution is simply a dangerous, demeaning way to earn a living, and this is what comes across most strongly in Blow Your House Down.
Angela McRobbie, "Cross Winds," in New Statesman, Vol. 107, No. 2777, June 8, 1984, pp. 24-5.∗
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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.
In her second novel, Blow Your House Down, Barker is clearly asking for trouble again. This time, her protagonists are working-class women who did break the rules and, in a way, leave the world they were raised in. Like Barker herself, they're professionals. The main characters—single mothers, battered wives, lesbians—are, as the narrative gradually reveals, prostitutes.
Barker has taken up one of the thorniest of feminist subjects—that peculiar "victimless crime" in which the criminal is the victim. The prostitute is where the buck stops in various cultural contradictions of sexism, like the one where a man can't respect the woman he desires, because a good woman is too pure for sex….
Barker doesn't explore the psychological factors that might have led her subjects into the business. These are neither rebels nor criminal types, nor even troubled victims of bad homes. Their motives are economic. They sell—actually rent out—their bodies as a last resort….
Barker's perception of the nature and purpose of the work is both shrewd and troubling….
Most of the customers are married and, just as conventional wisdom has it, they want to complain about their problems at home more than they want sex. But what they're really paying for is to not be criticized. The product that Brenda sells isn't so much a man's ejaculation as his ego, and her tools—under bridges, in deserted buildings, on rubble piles—aren't exotic wiles plus the thrill of sin, but rather patience and persistence. One woman complains that what she minds most about the work is that she can never laugh anymore, for fear her trick will think she's laughing at him. A laugh at the wrong time can set her back 10 minutes. It can even cost her life. Indeed, as we come to realize via the subtly suspenseful pacing of the first section, there is a real plot in this slice of life, and it concerns a jack-the-ripper type who specializes in whores. By the start of the book he's already killed one of Brenda's crowd, and he'll soon kill another before our eyes.
For all her matter-of-factness, Barker has a flair for the drama of the psycho-crime. The strongest story in Union Street was about the rape of an 11-year-old girl—the child's mesmerized collaboration, her complex, rather frightening defenses later. As Blow Your House Down clicks into gear, it looks as if this feminist chronicler of the working class has succeeded in constructing a conventional thriller on her own terms. She cannily exploits the creepiness inherent in her settings—the shadows, the little slip-ups, the suspicious behavior of any customer. One victim's photo, mounted on a billboard, peers eerily over scene after scene.
Somewhere in the last half of the book, the plot recedes and a theme takes over…. The theme seems to be the warning quoted from Nietzsche as the book's preface: "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster."…
But another theme is hinted by the title, copped from the wicked wolf's threat to the three little pigs, and here things get confusing. Either the title choice is extremely casual, or it raises pretty specific expectations. Is the first victim's passivity straw, Jan's vengeance wood, and Maggie's marriage brick? And if that's the comparison, is there a hint of a warning that, given the dangers to which all women are prey, we'd survive better by keeping the good men on our side? I wouldn't want a simple moral bludgeoned on such a many-layered story, but as it stands now, so many ideas are raised with so few narrative connections that the uncertain denouement … can't sustain them. Union Street's looser structure left space for connections to be found or not, but Blow Your House Down is tighter and more novelistic, while not quite tight or novelistic enough….
Barker has an original voice, blunt but tactful, deft but plain-spoken, and both her books offer reads no less provocative for being fast. Her feminism and her class concerns—that's to say, her interest in those women who are in the wrong class to be feminist—stay connected down to the core of her vision, and in many ways that vision is more original and more daring in the newer work. Her feminism is open-minded, personal, not too clubbish or academic, and it serves her well with a difficult subject. The connections she draws between "bad" and "good" women are not the predictable ones. Only the conclusion, or lack of one, is unsatisfying. Maybe Barker was bending over backwards to end her story of prostitution and misogyny on a positive note when there just isn't one. Maybe she hesitated to air a position on men that she knew could provoke still more ideological controversy. Or maybe—and I say this like a real sister, the irritating kind—she could have done a tiny rewrite.
Carola Dibbell, "Work Ethics," in VLS, No. 28, September, 1984, p. 15.
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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 Street"—perhaps even the same neighborhood…. And when we meet Brenda, the first section's main character, she seems like just another Union Street matron, hurrying through the evening chores in order to meet a friend for a drink. And an ordinary Union Street matron is exactly what Brenda is, except that like Kath and Audrey and Jean and the other women who gather each night for lager-and-lime at the Palmerston pub, she is a prostitute. She is also a woman who is risking her life—a homicidal maniac is on the loose and prostitutes are his prey.
It's the plot of a thousand thrillers, told this time from the point of view not of the male detective but from that of the victims and potential victims. (p. 7)
"Blow Your House Down" is swift, spare and utterly absorbing—you'll probably read it, as I did, in one tense sitting. It's also a bit puzzling. I wish I understood the relevance of the title, with its reference to the story of the Three Little Pigs, and I wish I understood what Mrs. Barker wants us to make of the story of Maggie, told in Part Four. A middle-aged married woman who works in the chicken factory, Maggie is attacked, perhaps by the killer, while walking through the prostitutes' turf on her way to meet a friend for a drink. Only Brenda stops to help her—passers-by assume Maggie's just another prostitute getting hers, a view the police at first share. Mrs. Barker's feminist argument is clear enough—sexual violence puts all women at risk, there are no "good" women and "bad" women, the victim of a sex crime is herself treated as a criminal.
Beyond these points, though, Maggie's story seems to undermine Brenda's and Jean's….
If the plot of "Blow Your House Down" could have used some rethinking, the novel nonetheless presents a remarkable portrait of the women themselves. Literature is full of prostitutes, of course, but most of them are male fantasies of one sort or another—hearts of gold, sex goddesses, calculating bitches, masochists. Brenda and her friends fit none of these stereotypes. None, for example, feels anything remotely approaching a sexual feeling for her customers—"if they were nasty you hated them; if they were nice you hated yourself," thinks Brenda—and indeed sex has rarely seemed as unappealing as it does in Mrs. Barker's bleakly matter-of-fact descriptions. Prostitution is here a matter of practical economics. For these uneducated women, most of whom have children and no husbands, the only jobs available are in the chicken factory or on the streets. And the streets pay better and offer more camaraderie, more autonomy and, ironically, hours more suitable for child rearing.
In Britain, Mrs. Barker is regarded as a regional writer, but this is surely a trivializing misnomer. What distinguishes her novels is not their regional qualities—an unusual setting, salty dialect, ways of life unfamiliar to the middle-class reader. It's that Mrs. Barker is able to make us see her characters from within, as they see themselves, and thereby reveals the full individuality and humanity of women who have got short shrift both in literature and in life. That makes Pat Barker a feminist. It also makes her a wonderful writer. (p. 9)
Katha Pollitt, "Bait for a Killer," in The New York Times Book Review, October 21, 1984, pp. 7, 9.
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