Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Pat Barker's assertive, acerbic prose draws readers quickly into the lives of the seven women at the center of the novel. Each chapter introduces readers to the perspective of a different woman living in the Union Street area of a city in northeastern England. The women differ in age and life experience, though all of them are impacted by the decline of the industrialized working class in England. As Barker introduces us to each of these women, their families, their friends, and their particular circumstances, she offers an opportunity for readers to access the world of Union Street from a variety of different entry points.
The dialogue in Union Street signals strongly the different personalities present among these women and how they orient themselves to the world around them. Barker's ability to write dialogue with such specificity and nuance, varying from chapter to chapter, provides a more holistic view of each of these women. It is an achievement worth recognizing, as female characters do not always get to exist as dynamic, differentiated characters. Through her use of dialogue, paired with visceral, unapologetic narration, Barker allows each of these women to live on the page, fully embodied and articulated.
Because this embodiment and articulation is achieved through her adept use of dialogue where the dialect is distinct, the diction is particular, and the cadence is natural, there are many quotations that may be deemed important or emblematic of the novel's power to represent strong, dynamic, and nuanced female characters. When looking for impactful quotations from this novel, exchanges between these women and their families are the most literarily ripe passages.
Highlighting how differently and vividly Pat Barker allows these female characters to exist is best done by contrasting two characters whose life experiences are remarkably different: Kelly Brown, who is eleven, and Alice Bell, who is in her seventies. The two quotations below show how differently Barker writes each of these women.
The following exchange between Kelly and her older sister, Linda, demonstrates how Kelly is dealing with life circumstances far beyond her preteen age but that she still manages to bring a youthful cheekiness to her relationship with her sister:
Linda pulled her bedclothes over her head. Kelly waited a moment, then jabbed her in the kidneys. Hard.
"Time you were up." Outside, a man's boots slurred over the cobbles: the first shift of the day. "You'll be late."
"What's it to you?"
"You'll get the sack."
"No, I won't then, clever. Got the day off, haven't I?"
"I don't know. Have you?"
No reply. Kelly was doubled up under the sheet, her body jackknifed against the cold. As usual, Linda had pinched most of the blankets and all the eiderdown.
"Well, have you?"
"Cross me heart and hope to die, cut me throat if I tell a lie."
"I don't mind turning out."
Contrasting this sisterly exchange in the cold morning is the life of Alice Bell, who speaks less often, isolated and alone, but who "spent her days in bed: it was her solution to the price of coal. Whenever she moved newspapers stirred and rustled all around her. The bed was full of them. She had read somewhere that newspapers were good as blankets."
In describing the simple actions of waking and longing for warmth, Barker articulates how each of these women lives life from a different perspective while still struggling with the same challenges of poverty.