So, I’ve spent a few days thinking over Pat Barker’s 1984 novel Blow Your House Down. This was a difficult and disturbing little book. At the same time, I had a hard time putting it down. Mostly because Barker’s straightforward style kept it from turning into something vulgar or sensational.
The bare bones of the story are that prostitutes in northern England are being murdered by a serial killer. That obviously doesn’t even scratch the surface of what this book is really about. Part I begins with Brenda and her story of becoming a prostitute – the man that abandoned her in staggering debt and with two children, the horrible job at a chicken factory, the discovery that the woman watching her children is abusing them and her eventual first ‘customer’. It is also a story of friendship, as one of the other prostitutes, Kath, takes Brenda under her wing and teaches her about surviving on the streets. But Part I takes a ghastly turn at the end, adopting the serial killer’s perspective and laying out a gruesome, detailed murder. It was one of the most difficult 12 pages I think I’ve ever read. But if I’m not mistaken, Barker is never one to spare the hard details.
Part III and IV, I think, are what make this book truly remarkable. In III, another prostitute, Jean, who has been particularly affected by the serial killer’s two most recent murders, decides to go after him. I am hard put to decide which character would have been more difficult for Barker to inhabit while writing – Jean or the serial killer. And yet she does both with considerable care and precision. Jean’s section is much more interesting, however, in the sense that we are never quite sure if her decisions are based on ‘fact’ or ‘fear’ – although she is one of the most courageous women in the entire book. The book opens with a quote from Nietzsche, which seems to speak to this section – Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. It strikes me on second thought, though, that this is equally true of the police trying to catch the killer, who are perfectly happy using the prostitutes as bait.
Part IV is the bridge between the prostitute’s world and ‘the rest of us’. It’s where Barker very cunningly reveals how, although we might like to ignore the violence out there, smug in our belief that we’re safe because we’ve kept ourselves separate from ‘that world’, we can’t, in fact, escape it at all. Most of the men who visit these prostitutes come from ‘our world’, the killer is someone who moves back and forth, someone we would never suspect if we met him outside those ‘dangerous’ places. And Barker makes it very clear that these women working the streets aren’t so different from the rest of us; the two worlds are highly entangled.
I’ve heard wonderful things about Barker’s writing style and it was really interesting to experience it on my own for the first time. She is incredibly precise and I couldn’t find a single instance of ornamental or superfluous description – yet there were moments when she brought two or three lines together and this incredibly vivid image just leapt off the page. And her transitions are very subtle. In Part I, when we switch to the killer’s perspective she does this wonderful trick of having him finish the line of a song one of the prostitutes is singing as she stumbles, drunk, down the street. He finishes that line and suddenly we’re seeing her through his eyes. Very effective. Very creepy.
Blow Your House Down was Barker’s second novel, and it’s set in the same area as her first, highly-acclaimed novel, Union Street. I think I’ll get a copy of this first one right away, I actually wish I had read it before Blow Your House Down. And then I’d like to read the Regeneration Trilogy, which numerous friends have recommended.