I had never heard of Lucia Berlin or her posthumous collection of 43 short stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women until it was mentioned, a few weeks ago, by someone in my U3A Zoom gardening group (I am not making this up). My gardening friend was about to read it for the book club she belongs to and was joking with the rest of us about the title. I was intrigued and bought it – and I have now learned a great deal about Lucia Berlin, mostly from her stories, many of which are transparently autobiographical, but also from a bit of supplementary research.
She was an American short story writer who died in 2004 and that’s interesting in itself. Some authors (Katherine Mansfield, Saki) make the short story their own single means of expression. Others (Roald Dahl, Daphne du Maurier) wrote some powerfully memorable short stories but also lots of good novels. Berlin, it seems, was firmly in the former camp. And anyone who can come up with “Our leg chains made the sound of oriental instruments and the prisoners in orange jumpsuits swayed together like Tibetan monks” gets my vote.
Her colourful, often troubled, life ranged across New Mexico, Texas, California and Mexico – among other places. She married three times and had four sons. She suffered from scoliosis – like Richard III and Princess Eugenie. In Berlin’s case there was a double bend in her spine which meant wearing a painful back brace. It also led to a punctured lung so that for many years towards the end of her life she was never seen other than attached to an oxygen cylinder. She came from a family of alcoholics and it took her decades to overcome her own alcoholism. (I had to look up “Jim Beam” which she frequently refers to in the stories: Kentucky bourbon whisky, like Jack Daniels, apparently.) Along the way, between 1971 and 1994, Lucia Berlin worked variously as a high school teacher, a switchboard operator, a hospital ward clerk, a physician’s assistant – and, briefly, as a cleaning woman.
The title story is a witty, rueful account, written in the first person. from the point of view of a newly widowed cleaner in financial need, about working in other people’s houses bearing in mind that your employer has no idea what you’re thinking.”Try to work for Jews or black. You get lunch” she says sardonically. Her accounts of the bus journeys between jobs are colourful and sad – and it’s all part of raw anguished grieving for her husband.
The stories range across nursing a dearly loved sister through terminal cancer, childhood with an appalling dentist grandfather, chatting in launderettes, going to huge lengths to get alcohol and consorting with “alkies” on the street. At other times she’s describing humane work with very sick people and cheerfully managing awkward doctors. She has a habit of alternating narrators in stories, which once you’ve tuned into it, makes for perceptive characterisation.
The story which moved me most was “Mijoto” about an abused young Hispanic girl with almost no English, alone, misunderstood, pregnant and terrified. The narrative switches between her and a medical professional (probably Berlin herself or closely modelled on her) and it’s clear that the baby is in great danger. The writing is so vivid that you ache to reach into the pages and take both Amelia and her sick, crying baby to a place of safety.
Berlin published several books of short stories in her lifetime which achieved only modest success. This volume published in 2015, with a foreword by Lydia Davies and introduction by Berlin’s friend Stephen Emerson, is a collection drawn from her earlier books. And it seems to have taken off – rave reviews in newspapers such as the New York Times, and on this side of the Atlantic The Guardian have led to high sales and many personal recommendations. Including this one.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham