My husband bought this book for me, having read a review online praising the writer. I have read many collections of short stories in my time, including the likes of Katherine Mansfield, Doris Lessing, John Steinbeck, Janet Frame, Raymond Carver, and Alice Munro. Until I unwrapped the book and read the cover, this was the first time I’d met this author.
Lucia Berlin had been described as ‘one of America’s best kept secrets’, with the first publication of this selection of short stories coming a decade after her death in 2004. A Manual for Cleaning Woman does not possess the jottings of a bored or disgruntled maid noting the number of white shirts which must be ironed daily, or the meals which must be prepared and served to their employers’ spoiled darlings; it delivers something remarkably different. It is, in short, a set of stories which are compelling because they tell of the dire situations in which people find themselves, either by chance or circumstance, in settings where the reader is voyeur to the unfolding inevitability of the subjects’ lives. Her writing is fluid, startling, real. It haunts you long after the page is turned.
Berlin knows her characters inside and out, as her life stories clearly inform her writing. She lived a peripatetic existence from an early age, moving where her father’s work took the family, to mining towns in Kentucky, Idaho and Montana. There was a stint in El Paso when her father went to war, and following his return the family moved to Santiago, Chile. She goes to university in New Mexico, marries, has two sons, then moves to New York, remarries and has two more sons. By 1960 Berlin is in Mexico, and marries for the third time. By now she is a drinker. An alcoholic. She knows shame, and degradation; mixes with a community who experience the same levels of desperation. It is these people and their lives which fuel her writing.
But the stories she pens are so full of life, grace and love, as well as the horror of abuse, death, incarceration and trauma. Her characters are a reflection of our society. They are at once of her, and of us. Berlin worked in hospital emergency rooms, as a teacher, a cleaner and more, and such places feature as settings. She wrote, drank and raised her sons throughout these experiences. Fortunately she was able to give up alcohol, and continued writing. The saddest part is, that this wonderful selection of Lucia Berlin’s stories only received wide public acclaim after her death. I urge you to read her.
Published by Picador, 2016, paperback