While so far, this column has been used as a space to spotlight and celebrate new books by Northern women, I’m excited to take a slightly different approach in the year ahead. Platforming fresh voices remains an integral part of these reviews, but I’m also interested in sharing some iconic books written over the last century that I think are essential to the Northern literary canon.
This month’s pick marks the first of those: Pat Barker’s Blow Your House Down. Best known for her First World War trilogy, the third instalment of which won the Booker Prize, and more recently her feminist takes on ancient tales, I find this book often slides under the radar. I’ve pushed this into many hands since reading it, and every one of those people loved it, so I decided it was time to give this book its rightful spot in the NRTH LASS library.
Blow Your House Down was published in 1984 and follows the lives of a group of sex workers living in the North of England. Loosely based on the Yorkshire Ripper murders, the story is driven by a killer who roams the streets and targets vulnerable women. Despite the risk of death now associated with their jobs, they have children to feed and rent to pay – life must carry on. Like most sensationalised serial killer sagas, documentation of Peter Sutcliffe’s crimes often focuses on the man himself and the brutality of his murders. While fictional, Barker’s narrative places priority on the victims of such crimes and restores agency to the women impacted by the violence inflicted.
The working-class women in Pat Barker’s books are powerful, tender and complex, and Blow Your House Down is no different. Her intensive use of dialogue captures this brilliantly, crafting conscious and believable conversations between the characters. She incorporates a distinctive Northern dialect without patronisation and creates women worth falling in love with on the page. Written in the midst of Second Wave Feminism, Barker’s novel speaks strongly to the idea that sex work is work, and women who partake in such activity should be viewed no less than any other. During the Ripper investigation, prostitution was vilified by police and the media, and Sutcliffe’s victims were blamed in part for their own death. Blow Your House Down represents the multiplicitous perspectives of women and exposes the bigotry of this narrative.
Despite the grim circumstances faced by the women in this novel, the fierceness of their friendship is undeniable. They are comrades in arms, there for each other at every turn and brought together to fight against a common enemy. The women understand the danger posed to them by a patriarchal society and go to extreme lengths to ensure each other’s survival. This is demonstrated when another woman is savagely murdered by the killer, and her lover embarks on a mission to avenge her death – whatever it takes. The characters in this book fear the worst, but in friendship, they become more powerful than ever.
Above all, Blow Your House Down is a deeply honest representation of what it is to be a woman in a society rife with violent men. It highlights how minority groups are exposed to further risk, how working-class women suffer at the hands of men and how sex workers are blamed when men act out. The impact of this book is immense, and despite being written in the 80s, its social commentary remains more relevant than ever.
If you’re a fan of literary crime narratives with a strong message at their core, you will adore this touching and nerve-wrenching novel. Buy it here to support the indie bookshop community.
Words: Beth Barker
Beth Barker is a writer and blogger from Blackpool, and co-host of Up North Books, a podcast celebrating books and writers from the North of England.
Beth wanted to contribute a monthly review to NRTH LASS in order to shine a light on Northern women writing great books. The North is very much underrepresented in publishing and she hopes a monthly review throughout 2021 will showcase the talent Northern women have to offer.
For more book reviews and insights on publishing in the North, follow Beth on Instagram and Twitter.