Thursday, 3 February 2011

The Clapping of Wings

Virago Reading week may be over but what I like about blog events is that they live on. Carolyn wrote, like all the Virago posts, a wonderful thought provoking post. This sentence really spoke to me 'I don't want to spend another year just reading comfort books' . This was partly the reason why when I found Union Street in the second hand bookshop I picked it up and bought it. And now why I'm posting this.

It's the story of seven girls/women who live on Union Street. It is definately not a comfort read. This is real poverty. Not the 'we used to be rich but now we're living in a tumbling pile, at least we have Granny's fur stole to keep us warm' type poor. This is 'thank my lucky stars I hopefully will never live like this and what can I do to make sure other people don't too' type poverty.

There's young Kelly Brown having the childhood which makes me want to scoop her up and away from it. Yet she still finds moments of pleasure.

'Suddenly she came out on to a field of brilliant, white light. There were seagulls there, hundreds of them, standing motionless in pools of reflected cloud.... Then with a shout of joy, she ran towards them.
One by one with the clapping of wings, and then in a whole flock, they rose up and burst like spray in the air above her head.' Pat Barker Union Street

There are young mothers in loveless, aggressive marriages where the husband drinks all the money and wonders if he'll ever get another job. There is still the space for the profound, holding her new daughter, staring out of the hospital window.

'Now she held her daughter in her arms. And the thought that inside that tiny body was a womb like hers with eggs waiting to be released, caused the same fear, the same wonder. She walked across to the window holding the child in her arms.
My daughter.'

There's the mother who takes her own daughter to a back street to see the lady who 'help[s] girls out of a jam', knowing that in doing she's risking her life.

And then there's Alice. Alice Bell. Eats nothing, wraps herself in newspaper so that she has enough money for a proper funeral, not a pauper's funeral. Alice who the neighbours care for, but whose son and wife don't. Alice whose story speaks to my heart and soul.

'Inside herself, she was still sixteen. She had all the passion, all the silliness.'

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?
Please if you read no more just read Alice Bell's story.


  1. I'm thrilled you've written this! And now I'm going to see if I can find the book. Virago was the only publishing company who wanted to publish Pat Barker after this novel was turned down for ten years because it was too bleak! It must have been partly because it was about working class women though, because the 'angry young men' movement had already published lots of men who wrote bleakly about poverty in Britain... or am I wrong?? And she's gone on to win a Booker, hooray for Virago giving women authors a chance to get started!

  2. Ashamed to say that I've never read any Pat Barker and not sure February is the right time for me to, but I will once the days brighten and I can look up and out from the bleakness at some clean green instead of the endless sea of mud everywhere is at the moment. Yes I am a feeble creature and February is books-for-comfort month!

  3. Thank you for this wonderful post, and for reminding us that Viragos are for life and not just for a week! I am a comfort reader a lot of the time and I know that I should push my boundaries a little more. I've avoided Union Street because I was aware that it would be a bleak novel, but your review has encouraged me to give it a try, soon.

  4. Carolyn - How interesting to learn more about Pat Barker - thank you. Glad you liked this post.
    Tonia - it was my first Pat Barker. Had it not been for Virago Reading Week I'm not sure I'd have read it. Happy February Reading.
    bookssnob - Yes for life not ust a week. Do read it and then please review it.

  5. I don't want to spend another year reading comfort books, which I actually didn't; I spent last year reading 'obligation books'. Ones I'd agreed to review which just annoyed me to no end once the year was over and I realized all the worthy books I'd left unread. I like how you say that these events don't end. I didn't have much chance to participate in Verigo Reading Week, but I will be choosing from their list all year.

  6. I have not read this, but it sounds very intriguing. It sounds like it would be a very humbling book. Thank you for sharing some of it here.

  7. Bellezza - Look forward to reading your Virago posts over the year.
    Poppies - Yes it is a very intriguing book.


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