The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Most of the people living on Union Street are poorly educated and not very articulate. Pat Barker’s gift is her ability to bring them vibrantly to life through gusts of earthy dialogue in the authentic vernacular of the region.

The seven protagonists can be seen as representing the seven ages of womanhood—seven dark ages, concentrating on the tragic rather than the joyous. Each of the women has her own strong individuality, but they share a common perception of the inevitability of hardship and a sense of stoical endurance. Because they are woven in and out of one another’s stories, their characters are not one-dimensional but are built up through several different points of view.

Iris is the dominant—and the toughest—woman on the street; she is highly respected and turns up in most of the stories to offer help and advice. She comes from an even poorer area than Union Street, had an excessively hard childhood, and has had to fight every inch of the way to achieve her present status. It is partly because of her determination to hold on to her hard-won respectability that she handles her daughter’s abortion with such ruthlessness and single-mindedness.

Iris’ recollections of her brutalized childhood echo Kelly’s experience. Kelly’s crisis is not only the rape itself but also her loss of confidence in the adult world when she sees first the rapist and then her mother (after her latest lover has abandoned her) break...

(The entire section is 595 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown, an eleven-year-old schoolgirl who lives with her older sister Linda and their mother. “Uncle” Arthur, the latest in a succession of her mother’s male friends, also lives with the family for a while. A latchkey child who frequently skips school, Kelly has grown accustomed to deprivation and to using deception to survive. Although proud of her independence, Kelly still unconsciously clings to her mother, seeking her love and approval. When Kelly is raped, she is too afraid to tell anyone at first; her reactions emerge later, in a screaming fit. Kelly cuts her hair as an act of self-mutilation and of aggression, and she retreats into an obstinate isolation. Kelly also acts out her pain and anger through petty crime but is increasingly afraid of herself and what she might do.

Joanne Wilson

Joanne Wilson, an eighteen-year-old bakery worker who wants for herself something different from what she observes around her. When she finds herself pregnant and unmarried, however, she gradually realizes that she is caught in the same trap. The pregnancy alienates her from her mother. Moreover, although communication with her resentful boyfriend, Ken, is never good, the couple feel themselves doomed to marry. Joanne is different enough from others to stand up for a coworker, but her conformity is revealed through her relationship with the midget Joss. Joss is handsome and offers hospitality, a refuge, advice, and respect, but Joanne cannot imagine more than friendship because of his size.

Lisa Goddard

Lisa Goddard, a young married woman with two boys (Kevin and Darren) and a third child on the way. She is often forced to cope alone because her unemployed husband, Brian, is always out drinking. He is often abusive when he does return home. Lisa is frequently tired and desperate, and she takes her anger and frustration out on the children. Although this reaction horrifies her, she is unable to...

(The entire section is 812 words.)