Pat Barker – Blow Your House Down

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.

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

8 thoughts on “Pat Barker – Blow Your House Down”

  1. This sounds utterly fascinating. For all the hard details, I think I would really like to read this, because it sounds like a really rich and intellectual story. Also, I think I will need to move Regeneration (the one Barker I do own) up my reading queue.

  2. Hmm… your description of her writing style sounds intriguing, but I think the content would leave me depressed and drained. What is her other book about? And if this book was in ’84, then she must have something else published by now…

  3. I read The Ghost Road, and, now that I think about it, I’m not sure why I read that one, since it’s the third book in a trilogy. Anyway, the book didn’t work for me at the time, but it doesn’t mean I won’t return to her at some point — she certainly is an interesting, provocative writer.

  4. Steph – I’d be interested to know what you think, it was a very difficult read in many ways, mostly because Barker is graphic about the violence she writes into the story. But I’d like to read Regeneration as well…

    Litlove – I am the same way, a few years ago I started to read The Eye in the Door (the second of the Regeneration trilogy) and ended up putting it down. I’d like to try again, since I suppose I’d be forewarned now.

    Bikkuri – Her Regeneration trilogy is about WWII (I believe, now that I’ve written that I’m afraid its about WWI) and in that sense I think the context makes the content a little easier to handle. But no, she isn’t an uplifting read. Not at all.

    Dorothy – She is at that. I read a review of Blow Your House Down that took it on as a severely feminist novel, something I didn’t really think about while I was reading it. It was an interesting critique, especially since it found fault with some parts of the book for contradicting others…very interesting.

  5. What a good job you’ve done of capturing Barker’s strengths as a writer! She’s a tough one for readers. Her unflinching eye paired with what you’ve identified as her straightforward style and “jump off the page” vividness is just too much of a punch for some, especially when teamed with the subject matter of Blow Your House Down. I’ll risk being repetitive to say again that the Regeneration Trilogy can be read from an entirely new perspective (and with some relief) once you’ve managed Blow Your House Down. The characters of the trilogy (some historical like the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon) add a certain rich warmth, that BYHD just can’t accomplish.

    Bravo!

  6. Stefanie – We’ll have to compare notes on the Regeneration trilogy, I’m preparing myself for a difficult read, but I think her writing style will get me through it with more enjoyment than struggle.

    Deborah – The subject matter of Blow Your House Down was tough, I can see how handled by a less skilled writer it would have read more like a thriller, or at least would have turned away from the women of the story – and they really were the essence of the book. It’s good to hear your thoughts on Regeneration, I’m really looking forward to settling down with those books sometime this year.

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