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In Union Street (1973), first-novelist Barker offered grim, vibrant, memorable vignettes of women's lives in England's industrial north. Here, with somewhat less breadth and power, she focuses on a few prostitutes in that same setting; and again, while attempts at novelistic shape and heavy thematics go awry, the portraits themselves are richly sad in vivid, spare observation. In the book's first half, we meet Brenda, devoted mother of three, as she sets off for her usual evening's work: some loosening-up at the pub, followed by a night of street-walking in mutually protective partnership with chum Audrey. Meanwhile, flashbacks fill in Brenda's reluctant but unmelodramatic path to prostitution: a feckless, deserting Mama's-boy of a husband; a slimy job at the local chicken-factory--lost when Brenda couldn't find a non-abusive ""child-minder"" for her kids; no money for the rent, the obvious solution, the social ostracism, the fear that the kids will Find Out. And there are graphic, depressing encounters with a variety of customers: ""if they were nasty you hated them; if they were nice you hated yourself."" Then, in the less compelling second half, a first-person narrator takes over: prostitute Jean, who recalls her equally dour on-the-job experiences, but also her slow-developing love affair with colleague Carol. And, throughout, least successfully, Barker attempts to add suspense--and a violence-against-women theme--through a psycho-thriller subplot: several prostitutes, including alcoholic Kath and Jean's lover Carol, have been murdered by an impotent misogynist; a terrified Jean is driven to kill in (mistaken?) self-defense; and an odd final chapter presents the effect of a random assault on a non-prostitute--a middle-aged factory-worker whose husband is a suspect in the multiple-murder case. As a novel, then, this is rather awkward--in both the halfhearted use of mystery/suspense elements and in the familiar variations on feminist themes (wifedom as prostitution, etc.). But Barker's specifics--from factory to kids to shops to ugly car/alley sex--are indelibly authentic, affectingly severe.

Pub Date: Sept. 11th, 1984
ISBN: 0860683982
Publisher: Putnam