The words that immediately come to mind after finishing Blow Your House Down by Pat Barker are negative: unflinching, bleak, dark and depressing. This is a dark story of the women preyed upon by a killer, women living on the edge, surviving by selling their bodies to men at a time when prostitutes are being murdered. But other words also came to mind as I dwelled on the book afterwards: friendship, community, solidarity, defiance, vulnerability, strength. Slim, I read it in one sitting on a rainy afternoon, this is a powerful, compelling read. It pulls you into the women’s stories, makes you feel at one with them.
Blow Your House Down is set in a Northern Town in the 1980s. The timing and setting draw inevitable links with the Yorkshire Ripper who preyed on prostitutes and lone women in the north and was arrested and convicted in 1981. Frightened but driven by the need for rent money or to feed their children, the women continue to walk the streets as the face of one of their own, Kath, the killer’s latest victim, looks down at them from a giant poster. The detail of their ordinary lives is described, starting with Brenda who settles her daughters in bed in preparation to going out with her friend Audrey. Their first call is the Palmerston, the pub where the women gather for a drink before going out onto the streets as a pair. There is a camaraderie, a spirit of just-get-on-with-it. We see some of Brenda’s back story, how she tried working at the nearby chicken factory where the women sing to cope with their grizzly job, how she has been let down by men and is trying to manage on her own.
Barker shows no sentimentality for the women, she describes their lives simply and allows the characters to elicit the reader’s sympathy. Like the chickens lined up on the production line, the women walk up and down the streets, trying to support each other by taking note of number plates. The police sit by, watching, using the women as bait to catch the killer. The men have no voice, they are portrayed as liars, weak and pathetic, except for one whose breath smells of the violet sweets he eats.
“You do a lot of walking in this job. More than you might think. In fact, when I get to the end of a busy Saturday night, it’s me feet that ache. There, that surprised you, didn’t it?” Part 3 starts with Jean, whose lover Carol, thought to have gone to London, has been identified as the latest victim. Jean sets out to entrap the killer. “I want to catch the bastard more than most.”
The language is unstinting and graphic, particularly of the sex scenes. The women’s dialogue is in the vernacular which makes them feel real. The tension rises as you wonder which woman will be killed next; each time a women gets into a car with a stranger you think ‘is it him?’ and this drives you to read on.
An accomplished novel published in 1984, it is difficult to appreciate this was only Barker’s second novel. Read it, you will not forget it.
‘Blow Your House Down’ by Pat Barker [UK: Virago]
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