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Pat Barker is perhaps best known for writing the Regeneration Trilogy, especially 'Regeneration' itself, a novel about the First World War which was made into a film in 1997. Before she gained widespread recognition for these war stories, Pat Barker wrote three novels which reflected her working class roots and the type of industrial poverty that she was brought up in.
Union Street was the first of these novels; unrelenting in its bleak depiction of working class life and the sort of deprivation that most people rarely encounter, this book centres on one street in England's industrial north east. Set in the 1970s, the book is divided into seven different sections, each one reflecting one of the seven ages of women. Every chapter tells a story in its own right, but is also linked through references back to the other characters and to life in Union Street in general.
Starting with Kelly Brown, the young daughter of a neglectful single mother and ending with Alice Bell, struggling to continue independent life on her own in her eighties, the chapters in between are all named after women and trace different dilemmas and tragedies in each of their lives. Chapters entitled 'Joanne Wilson', 'Lisa Goddard', 'Muriel Scaife', 'Iris King' and 'Blonde Dinah', introduce us to downtrodden and exhausted mothers, prostitutes, and pregnant teenagers. This is by no means easy reading; Barker does not attempt to hide or lighten the harsh nature of poverty, and each tale is told with unrelenting realism. In Kelly, a very young girl has to cope with the consequences of a brutal rape; Lisa, heavily pregnant with two young children, has to cope with a weak husband who drinks and steals his way out of the misery of poverty; Muriel has to watch the husband she loves slowly dying in front of her with no help from anybody; whilst Iris deals out tough love to her own children while trying to support others in the street who need some kind of comfort and support.
Stories of abortion, pain and gruesome death by haemorrhage may not be for everybody, but it is well worth persevering with this evocatively written book. With incredible skill, Pat Barker manages to enable the reader to jump inside the head of whichever protagonist is taking the stage at that time, from the exhaustion of a pregnant mother to the despair of an elderly lady isolated and abandoned in a freezing house, the reader is inexorably drawn into their story.
Pat Barker was born in Thornaby-on-Tees in Yorkshire in 1943. An illegitimate child, she never knew her father and was conceived after a drunken night out. Her mother also claimed that she did not know the identity of the father and brought up her illegitimate daughter as her sister. When Barker was seven her mother moved out and she was left to be brought up by her grandmother, living in the same kind of northern poverty that is portrayed in her first novels.
For some, the degree of deprivation and harshness may seem over-exaggerated, but with this type of background, we can only assume a large degree of autobiographical authenticity in the writing. The stories told are difficult to read in their realism, but when the working class credentials of the author are taken into account the reader must see the work as a social commentary as well as a work of fiction.
Looking past the misery of some of the stories, it is important to see small moments of joy and hope hidden within them. The book is ultimately a feminist as well as a working class piece of writing; the women in the stories are strong, bonding with each other and keeping their families safe and united. It is the unusual nature of this novel that made publishers reject the book for ten years, until Virago eventually agreed to publish in 1982. Since that time, Union Street has consistently been one of Virago's best sellers and appears on many university degree course reading lists.
Union Street was made into a film in 1990 called Stanley and Iris. Although this is loosely based on one of the stories in the book, it bears little resemblance to the original novel.
Union Street won the Fawcett Society Book Prize in 1983.
It was published in by 1982 by Virago Press. 266 pages, ISBN 0860682838.
Union Street, published in 1982, was author Pat Barkers first ever novel although truth be told its more a collection of short stories with a common theme. It was written ten years prior to its publication but didn't appeal to publishers in the 1970s. Its not the most uplifting of books although its very poignant and shows that lifes mistakes are repeated by each generation.
The book tells the individual tales of seven of the occupants of the fictitious Union Street, each of these women lives in poverty on the breadline although their outlook on life couldn't be more different.
The UK is in the grip of the miners strike, coal is scarce and prices are high. Many of the men of Union Street are out of work and the ladies turn to the world's oldest profession in order to put food on the table. Previously if you'd have asked me about a lady of the night I'd have assumed that they were all aged between 16 and 35 so the tale of a lady older than my mum plying her wares for less than the price of a pint was most definitely an eye opener. As was the detail crammed into each short chapter which brings the characters to life. Interwoven into each life story is a small link to another's life which enhances the book.
The youngest of these ladies is Kelly a teenage rape victim forced to live with the stigma of the abused knowing that behind her back the whole street talks about her. Her neighbours include a bedridden old lady who lies in a bed packed out with newspaper on the verge of freezing to death in the depths of winter in order to save the money needed to pay for her own funeral. The line between life and death is a fine one and more than one of the occupants are teetering on the brink.
It's not an easy read, nor is it a pleasant one but it challenges your perceptions and make you reconsider the trials and tribulations of a generation of women who lived through the 1970s and came out fighting.
I have to admit when I opened this book and read the first couple of pages, I was slightly taken aback by the crude tone and language used, and wondered if this novel was for me. However I perservered and within minutes I was completely absorbed.
The book contains the stories of 7 women all living on the same street in Northern England. It begins with the story of 11 year old Kelly, raped and traumatised, who struggles to deal with such an experience without much support. Then, chapter by chapter, it deals with the stories of 5 older women in the street, from about the ages of 20 up to 60, all dealing with various problems such as pregnancy, post natal depression, prostitution, the death of a husband, etc. Finally the book ends with the story of Alice, a stroke victim determined to end her life on her own terms without the interference of her uncaring son or a nursing home.
Whilst this might seem depressing, it actually manages to be quite uplifting. The harsh realistic imagery of the poverty and hardship present in the lives of these women is contrasted with the beauty of nature, the power of bonds between women, and the cyclical ongoing nature of life and love. The connection made between Kelly and Alice is particularly beautiful and heartrending. The book is incredibly easy to read, the characters are very well developed and you are quickly drawn into their world and made to sympathise with them.
It's also important to note that this isn't just a book for women - we read it on our university course and for a lot of the men, this was their favourite book of the module.
I had best say, though, that if you dislike hearing about the less glossy side of life, and are particularly sensitive, this may not be for you. Otherwise, definitely worth buying. I unreservedly award it 5 stars.
This book has an RRP of £7.99 but can be bought on Amazon.co.uk for £5.99 in paperback.
(Review also posted on Amazon.co.uk)