Monday, June 28, 2010

Union Street & Blow Your House Down by Pat Barker

Those of you who know of the author Pat Barker probably know her through her Regeneration trilogy, the last of which, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize in 1995. As I have done with so many novelists, I came to read Pat Barker long after she had become famous, but once I began to read her, I realized I just had to read everything she ever wrote. When I picked up the two books I’m talking to you about today, Union Street & Blow Your House Down, reprinted as one volume after she became famous, I had no idea that they were the first of her published works. How wonderful to stumble on these books and to see that long before she became famous, the articulate voice and the depth of insight were already in place.

Reviewers praise Barker for the meticulous research that preceded her trilogy about the trench warfare of World War I. She obviously researched the two books I’m discussing today as well, but the research was way more up close and personal. All the stories in these two volumes are about poor, working-class Northern England women and girls and the incredible lives they endured. Barker, too, is from a working class town in Northern England, raised by a single mother who had to struggle to keep food on the table. These are not happy books; even the language is harsh and spare, because she speaks in the dialects of the women about whom she is writing and whom it is obvious she knows very well. None of her characters are typical heroines, and yet it could not be more obvious that Barker sympathizes with and admires her characters. She writes of young girls who are raped or molested, forced into a kind of adult life when they are still only children, of women who marry too young to men who haven’t the slightest idea of who the women are or what they dream. Like their fathers before them, these boys-pretending-to-be-men take out their frustrations on their young wives, first with words, and then fists, and finally simply with their absence.  The women are left to fend not only for themselves, but for the too many children whom they cannot bring themselves to abandon. She writes of an old woman battered by life and left to die in an unheated flat, preferring cold and near starvation to the horrors of the health-care facilities that would be her next, and final, destination.
Her home. They were taking it away from her. The dirt and disorder, the signs of malnutrition and neglect which to them were reasons for putting her away were, to her, independence. She had fought to keep for herself the conditions of a human life. 
She was calm again. What she wanted was simple. She wanted to die with dignity. She wanted to die in her own home. And if that was no longer possible, she would go away. She would not be here waiting for them when they came.
Union Street, her first novel, published in 1982, is really a series of stories about these women and their interconnected lives, all of who live within a short distance of each other on Union Street. And while the women, unlike many of the men, remain with the children and do their best to provide for them, they cannot hide the resentment they feel not only towards the men who have left or who drink themselves into stupors every night at the local pubs, but towards the very children they want to nurture and protect. Barker describes in horrific detail the work lives of some of these women—some who work on an assembly line cake factory, others who spend every day in blood and feathers working in a chicken processing plant. No wonder that many finally turn to a better life, that of prostitution, which has its own horrors and dangers, but affords them an almost livable wage and a chance to spend more of their time with their children. In fact, Blow Your House Down, the second of the two novels, is all written through the eyes of working class women who have turned to prostitution as a better alternative to the nasty, low paying jobs they leave behind. Each story is riveting and utterly convincing; Barker knew these women (or women much like them), and her accounts are sympathetic rather than condemning. In the voice and language of the characters, she reveals so much about the inner lives of these women. Hard, struggling lives in many ways, but one cannot help but admire the strength, insight, even the humor of these women. One of the young women, Jo, describes the cake-making assembly line she works on.
The noise was horrific as usual. There was no possibility of conversation. Even the supervisor’s orders had to be yelled at the top of her voice and repeated many times before anybody heard. At intervals, there were snatches of music. It was being played continuously but only odd phrases triumphed over the roar of the machines. Some of the women moved their mouths silently, singing or talking to themselves:  it was hard to tell. Others merely looked blank. After a while not only speech but thought became impossible.
Descriptions of work in the chicken-processing plant are even more horrible—the  smells, the blood underfoot, the chickens swinging overhead on conveyer belts. And Barker does not spare the reader; she describes what she sees, what she has seen, with almost brutal accuracy.

While I think it is important to read these books when you are feeling strong, and to give up all hope of happy endings and cozy resolutions, this is social-political writing at its very best. She does not have to be didactic; she simply describes what she has lived and seen. I will leave you with a final quote from the story of Muriel, a woman in her early twenties who already has three children and a husband who is sick unto death.
She had never been able to take happiness for granted, perhaps because she had lost her father while she was still a child. She must always be aware of time passing, of the worm that hides in darkness and feeds upon innocence, beauty and grace. John’s hands on her breasts, the children asleep upstairs:  nothing was to be taken for granted. Love, security, order:  these were achievements painfully wrested from a chaos that was always threatening to take them back. She remembered the children playing in the lamp-light. Life was like that. Her life was like that. A moment in the light. Then the lamp goes out, the circle is broken, the chanting voices are silenced forever.

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