Fighting monsters without becoming one

This is my review of Blow Your House Down (Virago Modern Classics) by Pat Barker.

Set in a rundown northern town, this short but dense, bleak yet gripping novel exposes the lives of a disparate group of working class prostitutes trying to contain their rising fear over the mounting evidence of a serial killer, unprotected by the police who seem to using them as bait to trap him. Understandably haunted by the murder of her female lover, one of the women decides to take control and avenge her death, but can she be sure she has found the right man? Each of Pat Barker’s novels seems to be triggered by specific real events, in this case the activities of the “Yorkshire Ripper”.

Her second novel, published in 1984 long before she hit the Booker jackpot, this is very different from her recent work, revealing the style of her early writing from which a more fragmented, stream of consciousness, perhaps more self-conscious and studied, sophisticated style has developed. Parts 1 and 2 in particular seem more straightforward than later work, with strong dialogue and clear narrative drive making the novel a page-turner. Without undue sentimentality, Pat Barker arouses our sympathy for the women who have often had a raw deal and support each other with earthy and stoical humour. You may of course feel that, along with the stereotyping, she tends to let them off too lightly as unfortunate victims in comparison with the men, all of whom appear to some degree weak, pathetic or abusive. Along with some disturbing graphic descriptions of violence, there is the unsettling image of the headless chickens on a conveyor belt, their feathers stained with blood as an analogy for the victimised prostitutes.

Although Pat Barker’s talent as a wordsmith is evident, her plot potentially powerful, I found the arguably original and daring change in point of view in Part 4 too abrupt and confusing, destroying the flow and tension built up previously. Feeling that I had been catapulted into another novel, I had to search back to see if any of what seemed like a new set of characters had appeared before. I think the author is trying to show that how “respectable” women who suffer attack are treated better than prostitutes but think that this thread needed to be woven in more skilfully from the outset rather than bolted on as an awkward coda.

This novel confirms my impression that Pat Barker is a distinctive and thoughtful writer, who does not flinch from the challenge of describing horrific events which neither she nor most of her readers have experienced, who switches perhaps too swiftly from well-observed social chat to the macabre, and whose talents lie in striking description and dialogue rather than constructing a plot.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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