Uncompromising, unbelievably sad and harsh, Union Street by Pat Barker does not hide the uncomfortable truths of poverty in North-East industrial England. This is the story of eight women who live on Union Street from teenager Kelly Brown to Alice Bell in her eighties and though each story is told individually, like the lives of the women, the stories interweave. An honest book about women struggling to hold life, family and home together, while retaining pride and some of their own individuality. Some succeed in this, others don’t.
This is not a book about idealised motherhood. It is about putting bread on the table for your children no matter how you do it; including beating your husband to get his pay packet before he spends it on booze. These women are tough because they have to be; the choices are the cake factory, charring, and prostitution. Many marry young to feckless husbands because they are pregnant. This is not a light read; it features scenes of rape and backstreet abortion that somehow make the prostitution a lighter route. The language is often strong and some of the descriptions are difficult to read; but it is an honest book, bleak and realistic.
The spine throughout the book is Iris King, she appears in each story and is the one most aware of other women’s lives and offers support and a word of kindness when needed. But Iris is the toughest woman in the street. Three weeks after marrying Ted, he knocks her around because she is ironing his shirts when he gets home from work when he was expecting his supper. “After he’d gone, she sat down and took stock… When he came back she was waiting for him behind the door with the meat chopper in her hand. The blow glanced off him, though there was enough blood around to scare the pair of them stiff. It didn’t stop him hitting her again, but it did free her from the fear. She never lost her self-respect.” It is that self-respect which separates Iris from the other women.
This is the first novel by Booker Prize winner Barker, but such is the excellence of the prose you would never know. The ending is raw and sad, it cannot fail to touch you.
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UNION STREET by Pat Barker #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3rH via @SandraDanby