UNION STREET by Pat Barker


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From a wasteland-neighborhood in Britain's depressed industrial North: seven vibrant yet unrelievedly grim portraits of woebegone womanhood, in order of ascending age. First, in the book's longest story, comes eleven-year-old Kelly Brown--neglected by her slatternly Mam, raped during one of her nightly solo rambles, silent about it for three weeks, then filled with lonely pride and fury (""There was nothing bad enough to do""). Joanne Wilson, 18, works at the local cake-factory--there are indelible glimpses of factory life--and is pregnant by her student-boyfriend (""It was no pleasure. A sparrow couldn't've farted quicker""); but though she seems headed for marriage into a higher class, she'd really rather just stay with her adoring roommate, a handsome midget named Joss. Lisa Goddard is only a few years older than Joanne, but she's already forever stuck--with two screaming sons, an abusive, unemployed husband, and an unwanted baby on the way; still, despite the vividly evoked misery, and detailed labor pains, Lisa is able to feel a glow when holding her first daughter. And then there's poor Muriel Scaife, with a domineering mother, an ailing, illiterate husband (whose death provides a powerful vignette), and a son who could never make contact with his loving father--a relationship reminiscent of David Storey's comparable fiction. The older women here, however, are more determined to take control of their lives: Iris King, unofficial den-mother for the whole street, sees this neighborhood as a step up--and refuses to risk the status quo when sullen daughter Brenda gets pregnant (there's a harrowing abortion/premature-delivery); aging prostitute Dinah cheerfully, graphically awakens a middle-aged man's libido; and aged stroke victim Alice Bell, for whom Union Street has been a step down, will stop at nothing to avoid being placed in a state-run home (to her, no matter what they say, it's the ""workhouse""). First-novelist Barker attempts to link these tales--and to give them a boost or two of feminist solidarity--by having some of the characters cross paths. But the overall effect is nonetheless more documentary than fiction, with raw/true dialogue, visceral specifics (sex, pregnancy, birth, death, illness), and convincing, despair-soaked atmosphere.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Putnam