Union Street Summary
by Pat Barker

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Union Street Summary

Union Street was the first novel by Patricia Mary W. Barker (née Drake; born May 8, 1943) to be published, although Barker had written earlier novels that did she did not sell to publishers as she was honing her craft. Union Street was published by Virago Press, an English publishing house focusing on works by female authors, in 1982.

The novel is set in the northeast of England in a working-class neighborhood in the 1970s. This was a period of economic stagnation and deindustrialization in which many working class jobs in northern England disappeared, leading to political disillusionment, strikes, and other social problems. Barker's novel reflects how these economic and social circumstances affected seven women of different ages and situations. Much of the setting is similar to setting that Barker herself experienced growing up in Yorkshire.

The stories of the seven main characters are closely linked by location and experience of poverty and violence and work as linked rather than unified narratives. They show how the cycle of poverty and sexual oppression affect women's lives from puberty through old age.

The first story is that of Kelly Brown, a teenager who is raped by a stranger. The narrative shows how she attempts to cope with and process the experience of rape. Next, readers encounter the story of Joanne Wilson, who accidentally gets pregnant. Although neither she nor her boyfriend really want to get married, the pregnancy traps them into deciding to "do the right thing."

Lisa Goddard is an example of a woman trapped in an abusive marriage by an early pregnancy. She has two young children and an unemployed husband and relies on government subsidies to survive. Muriel Scaife and Iris King are both married mothers struggling with the effects of poverty and violence on their families. Blonde Dinah is a prostitute and an example of the precarious existence in this society of women who are sexually active but do not "do the right thing" by getting married. Finally, Alice Bell is an old woman trying to die with dignity despite her poverty. At the end of the novel, she meets Kelly Brown, completing the narrative cycle of the book.


(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 bakery; Elaine...

(The entire section is 1,117 words.)