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Pat Barker: Blow Your House Down

Barker’s second novel follows on from her first novel, with another story about working-class women in North-East England. The main difference in this novel is that most of the women are prostitutes. Employment opportunities for women are limited in this town and are essentially the chicken processing factory. Barker sets the tone for the novel by showing the bloody killing and cleaning of the chickens – she continually refers to the blood all over the floor. For many of the women, prostitution is a way out, even if it is only five pounds a time. We follow the stories of two prostitutes though, through them, we see the lives of several others.

The first is Brenda. She got pregnant early and later had another child by the same man. Her mother-in-law despises her and, eventually, Brian leaves and she is left to bring up the children on her own. She starts at the chicken factory but moves into prostitution. The main concern for her and the other prostitutes is a killer who stabs prostitutes (the book was written soon after The Yorkshire Ripper was arrested). Two of the prostitutes we meet – Kath and Carol – become his victims and Kath’s death is described in some detail. Many of the prostitutes decide to work in pairs for protection, with one going off with a client while the other takes the car number and awaits her colleague’s return. Kath had worked with Brenda but then got a boyfriend and retired. She returned to work when she split up with her boyfriend and worked on her own.

The second prostitute whose story we hear in the first person is Jean. When in London she had been assaulted and slashed by a client and still has a scar on her neck, which she tries, not always successfully, to conceal. She is Carol’s friend but Carol often goes it alone and when she is found dead, Jean is devastated but plans her revenge. We also learn about Elaine, whose husband is also her pimp and knocks her around and, when she goes into hospital to have a baby, goes off with someone else and Audrey, Brenda’s friend, who likes to spend her money on clothes and we even meet, briefly, two fourteen-year old prostitutes.

The story of the killer only starts to heat up in the second half of the book. This works, partially, to the advantage of the prostitutes, as the police no longer arrest them for soliciting but spy on them to see who their clients are, though they are totally unsuccessful. The novel ends with a story of a woman who works in the chicken factory but is not a prostitute. Maggie, having had a bit to drink after work, is on the way home, when she is smashed over the head. Is the culprit the prostitute killer? Neither we nor the police find out but we do know that the effect on Maggie is profound as she drifts away from reality and cannot concentrate on anything. But, just as in Union Street, we are left with the story of a group of women, subject to violence, with little hope of breaking out of their miserable existence yet, somehow, sticking together and fighting on.

Publishing history

First published 1984 by Virago