Union Street

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Union Street is composed of seven stories about significant events in the lives of seven women. There is no continuity of plot at surface level and no single protagonist. The stories are complete in themselves and could have been published separately. Except for the fact that all the women live on Union Street and are neighbors, there is no apparent special relationship among them, though different neighbors do appear in completely natural ways in each of the stories. In some ways, it seems as though the stories fit together as a story cycle like James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), and a reader beginning Union Street has no way of knowing the direction the volume will take until slowly, by accumulation of detail, the narratives fuse to become a novel with a protagonist whose conflict is defined by events spaced throughout a lifetime and beyond.

The seven women embody seven stages in the passage of life. The stages are not fixed but are alternatives, though the alternatives are limited by conditions possible in and defined by Union Street. At the beginning of the novel, this symbolic structure is not apparent: The women seem to represent not all women but only women confined to Union Street. The surprising resolution, however, broadens the scope of the novel in such a way that Alice Bell comes to represent all women, and her passing of the torch to Kelley Brown becomes an affirmation of life relating to all women regardless of their circumstances.

Union Street is a wasteland of rotting houses, of families subjugated by poverty, men made ill by the coal mines that both sustain and kill them, women made old by continual childbearing and the abuse of their men, and children left to fend for themselves at an early age, losing their innocence sometimes even before puberty. There are no villains here—there are only people who accept their circumstances and learn to live with them, and those who fail to achieve such acceptance, in one way or another destroying themselves and their families. In 1973, the year in which the novel is set, conditions are made worse by the coal miners’ strike. Out of work, the men abuse their wives; the women, basic caretakers, have to cope increasingly with drunken husbands, abusive husbands, absent husbands, and dying husbands.

The section on eleven-year-old Kelley Brown that opens the novel is in many ways the key to all that develops. Kelley and her sister, Linda, who is several years older and already dating, are the only children of Mrs. Brown. Their father left home many years before, and their mother has sought relationships with other men in a long series. Though she works all day, Mrs. Brown still stays out half the night drinking in pubs with her latest live-in. Thus, Kelley has had to learn to fend for herself and has adopted a surly, aggressive manner in her own home, but she is liked by the people in the neighborhood and still clearly seeks and needs her mother’s love and affection. All about Kelley are evidences of her approaching puberty and what it will mean, from the bloodied accoutrements of womanhood to the near-naked appearance of her sister in front of her mother’s lover. Kelley rejects it all: “No, she didn’t want to get like that.”

At the same time that she consciously rejects a sexual identity, however, subconsciously she seems to want to hasten the process. She courts danger and seems almost to summon “The Man” who rapes her. An image of “The Man” appears many times during the night that Kelley stays away from home to go alone to the park and the fair. She seems to have a premonition of what will happen to her and, moreover, determined to keep herself in danger. She sends her friend home and, after leaving the first man she encounters, who does her no harm, she continually looks for the figure of “The Man” who will bring her to knowledge. After the attack, she hangs on to him, forcing him to offer her food; in the restaurant, she watches him break down and cry, his image all around her reflecting itself in mirror tiles.

It is three weeks before she breaks down, screaming, and tells her mother what has occurred. Her mother, shocked for a moment at least into revealing the love for her daughter that she has hidden, identifies “The Man” symbolically with her husband, long gone. The identification is valid. Kelley has been rehearsing in her mind the one vivid memory she has of her father when she looks up to find the first man who approached her in the park, thus placing father and man in immediate and significant proximity.

Kelley’s feelings of revulsion, not only for what happened to her in the park but also for the whole cycle of sex and poverty and dirt, lead her to enter a large Victorian house whose occupants are out for the day. There she finds evidence of her approaching sexuality all around in waste materials in bath and bedrooms. In the house, she uses a manicure scissors to cut off her hair to make herself ugly. Later, at school, she destroys furniture and defecates, in her fury writing on the blackboard the worst words she knows to describe fornication and defecation.

What a reader does not know until the novel is completed is that Kelley’s chapter introduces every important character in the book, from Iris King, the only woman Mrs. Brown can call upon for help, to Sharon Scaife, daughter of...

(The entire section is 2224 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Each of the seven chapters in the novel re-creates the experiences of a different woman who lives on Union Street. Each chapter portrays the experiences of a woman older than the primary character in the previous chapter, so that the novel provides a view of the intergenerational “stages of life” of all the women on Union Street. Although each chapter stands alone in the context of the overall work, the novel is best read as a series of interlocking stories that provide insights into different dimensions of women’s experience. The women in this novel are trapped by poverty, poor educational backgrounds, cycles of family violence, narrowly defined sex roles, physical limitations, and children who have lost a sense of filial piety.

The opening and closing chapters provide a framework for the other five stories. In both chapters, the youngest and the oldest characters encounter each other at the climactic moment in each woman’s story. In the first chapter, Kelly Brown’s childhood comes to an abrupt end when a stranger she befriends rapes her in an alley. From that moment, Kelly begins an emotional and psychological journey that will be made by all the women in the novel: She faces her grief work alone until she encounters someone who helps her find a way to complete a transition from her former self to a new self—in Kelly’s case, from a child to an adult. When Kelly meets Alice Bell, an old woman, in the park at the end of her story, she...

(The entire section is 570 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Barker’s first three novels, Union Street (1982), Blow Your House Down (1984), and The Century’s Daughter (1986), the experiences of working-class women are central to the themes of the works. In that respect, Barker’s work deserves recognition for its contribution to the tradition of British working-class novels. Novelists such as D. H. Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe, and John Braine told stories of working-class men. Their characterizations of women were often negative; women were portrayed as limited characters who held men back and kept them from realizing their dreams. Barker extended, and to some extent revised, this working-class tradition by writing about women who were oppressed by abusive, controlling, and insensitive men. The women overcome that oppression through their fortitude, their capacity for intimacy and sharing in relationships, and their commitment to children and the family structure. The women in Union Street, the prostitutes in Blow Your House Down, and the old woman in The Century’s Daughter exemplify these strengths of character. Barker emphasizes her characters’ ability to survive adversity in her stories of working-class women.

To some extent, Union Street can be compared, in terms of structure and theme, to the works of three American writers. Structurally, Barker’s novel is reminiscent of Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place (1982)...

(The entire section is 408 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Barker, Pat. “Going Home Again: An Interview with Pat Barker.” Interview by Donna Perry. Literary Review 34 (Winter, 1991): 235-244. The occasion for the interview was the publication of Barker’s novel The Man Who Wasn’t There. Other subjects include Barker’s political themes, her process of writing, and her attitudes toward feminist writing.

Fairweather, Eileen. “The Voices of Women.” New Statesman 103 (May 14, 1982): 21-23. The author provides insights into the genesis of Union Street and suggests ways in which Barker’s work is a major revision of the tradition of British working-class novels. She notes relevant details of Barker’s childhood environment, family life, and early attempts at writing fiction.

Gorra, Michael. “Laughter and Bloodshed.” Hudson Review 37 (Spring, 1984): 151-159. The article includes reviews of six new works of fiction. Two pages are devoted to a response to Union Street. Gorra believes that the achievement of the novel is greater than its label as a working-class masterpiece would lead one to believe. He comments on the ways in which sex and violence form the basis of the characters’ experiences.

Harper’s Magazine. XXVI, November, 1983, p. 67.

Library Journal. CVIII, September 1, 1983, p. 1719.

Ms. XII, January, 1984, p. 12.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, October 28, 1983, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, July 22, 1983, p. 116.

Pykett, Lyn. “The Century’s Daughters: Recent Women’s Fiction and History.” Critical Quarterly 29 (Autumn, 1987): 71-77. Pykett evaluates Barker’s third novel, The Century’s Daughter (1986), as a significant example of women’s perspective on history and compares the novel to a similar contemporary work. She considers some of the themes in Barker’s work, including social realism, feminism, and class conflicts.

Stone, Les, and Jean W. Ross. “Pat Barker.” In Contemporary Authors, edited by H. May and S. M. Trosky. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. A bibliographical essay that surveys critical response to Barker’s early novels. In an interview, Barker explains how her writing style evolved and notes the concept of a “communal voice,” which is used in two of her novels. She also discusses her reputation as a “regional writer.” A listing of reviews of Barker’s work is appended.