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Pat Barker: Union Street

Barker’s first novel set a tone we would see again – the story of working-class women with little positive in their lives. They all live in a bleak unnamed North-Eastern English city. Their husbands, generally out of work, are often alcoholic or abusive or both. Love does not seem to be a key element in their lives. Barker tells the stories of seven of them, each with her own chapter, though many other characters appear and several of the women know one another. The first woman is Kelly Brown who is not yet really a woman. She lives with her mother, her sister and Wilf. Rather she did live with Wilf but when she gets up at the beginning of the story, Wilf has gone, to be replaced by”Uncle” Arthur, her mother’s latest live-in boyfriend though he too will have gone by the end of the story. She”nicks off” school and is followed by a man, who buys her sweets, then rapes her and then buys her fish and chips. Her mother is sympathetic but there is nothing to be done and life just carries on.

The other stories are about older women, with Iris King appearing throughout, the mother figure of the street, who listens to Mrs. Brown when her daughter is raped, and is around for the others as well. A woman giving birth to an unwanted child, a former prostitute, two women having a fist fight at the factory, the woman with the sick husband, having to care for the whole family and, finally, Alice Bell, the old woman who wants to die in her own house, these are the inhabitants of Union Street. Their lives are bleak with few prospects of happiness or love but yet, somehow, they struggle along, despite adversity, and it is this that makes Barker’s novel interesting.

Publishing history

First published 1982 by Virago