After reading this work of perfection I googled the Booker Prize winner for 1984. It was 'Hotel du Lac' by Anita Brookner. One of those books I have read but have no memory of in terms of characterisation, plot or pleasing language. I looked for the short list of nominees. Bizarrely 'Blow Your House Down' was not listed. How did this gem escape the Booker crew? I know she won a few years later for 'The Ghost Road' but I can't stand the thought of readers who like having their minds made up for them 'doing' that year's Booker and missing this important, intense experience, or dismissing it as 'one of her early books before she became good' (ie Booker worthy).
It's distinctively vivid and (curiously) both grim and warm. However, despite the northern dialect in the authorial voice and the voices of its characters (so often done as 'quaint' in the media) - it is not cozy. It's not 'Coronation Street' meets 'Prime Suspect'. It is exciting (I know that sounds perverse, but it is). It's also fast paced and it does have a 'Ten Little Indians' quality to it. You'll be thinking: 'Oh no, I hope it's not...(insert your favourite character's name here)..'s turn next.'
It is so very difficult to write about working class life when the financial constraints affecting your characters necessarily limits you to depressing landscapes and locations. No 'I had a farm in Africaaaa' for these people. However, even the bleak alleys and sodium street lamps are given a kind of(if not beauty, then) a compelling quality. The starlings gathering at the close of the novel seem as baleful as the ravens in the Tower of London in terms of atmosphere. It is so very real - you feel you're there with the working girls at the Palmeston pub in the back room: fearing, blustering, despairing. You won't forget the characters' names. I didn't want to let them go and I read the last few chapters slowly. It's one of those books that you sometimes wait years for.
And leave it to a woman to write about the horror of rape without (however unconsciously) making it seem gratuitous or questionable in terms of the writer's motive. It is messy, brutal and decidedly free of any erotic quality. As ever, real life is more intense in terms of impact than any embroidering work of fantasy here.
This book was (heavily) inspired by Peter Sutcliffe's killings in the North of England 30-odd years ago. I remember them quite well, cos I grew up in the North. I remember feeling scared. Barker captures this siege mentality so well. It's a pity this book hadn't been written before the killings, in some sort of fit of prescience , because then Margaret Thatcher and her 'Disgusted from Tunbridge Welles crew' might not have been so quick to make the offensive distinction between 'common prostitutes' and 'one of our girls' (those victims who were not prostitutes and/or hailed from the Home Counties.) I've never read a book (or a newspaper article) which has such compassion and empathy for sex workers and their reasons for choosing this dangerous, unpredictable lifestyle. If you can call it a choice, as many of Barker's women were clearly destined to short change themselves in life.
This book is every bit as memorable as Donna Tartt's 'The Secret Hstory' or Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children', but it centres around working class life and the author's (necessary) use of idiom may have worked against her. I wonder whether the original publishing house 'Virago' put some people off too. Shame, because I can't think of a novel that has ever tackled this kind of horror story so successfully before. She deserves massive kudos and this book should be much more widely known.
Whoever gave it just the 4 stars is truly the Craig Revel Horwood of Amazon reviewers. Read it!