A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin: Saving some for later

Cover image Lucia Berlin’s short story collection seem to be everywhere at the moment – her beautiful face shines out from broadsheet reviews, her book sits at the front of every bookshop I’ve been in recently – yet her work isn’t new. She died in 2004 having written intermittently over a long period stretching back to the ‘60s, fitting her stories around a multitude of jobs from teaching English to cleaning houses. Previously published by a small press, it’s as if a well-kept secret has suddenly been revealed. I’ve read about half of the collection – there are forty-three stories in all – but they’re not to be gulped down. I’m taking a little break and collecting my thoughts on the ones I’ve read, planning to read the rest a little more slowly.

The collection comes complete with an introduction by Stephen Emerson – Berlin’s editor and dear friend – a short biographical note and a foreword by Lydia Davis, herself no slouch in the short story department according to those who know more about these things than I do. From these three pieces it’s clear that Berlin drew heavily on her own life when writing her stories and what a rackety life it was: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile. Here’s a flavour of her stories’ rich diversity: a young girl helps her dentist grandfather extract all his teeth, replacing them with his masterpiece – a perfect replica – in ‘Doctor H. A. Moynihan’; the eponymous story sees a cleaner mentally running through her clients on the bus route home, tossing in helpfully bracketed tips to her colleagues; a woman speculates on why Sundays are so hard to write about in ‘Points of View’; a nursing assistant tenderly cradles a jockey’s broken body in ‘My Jockey’; a women in love with the idea of romance finds out more than she bargained for in ‘Melina’; in ‘Unmanageable’ a mother, desperate for alcohol, is treated with poignant kindness then returns home to her thirteen-year-old son who has been driven to confiscating her wallet and her car keys.

Both Davis and Emerson have written far more eloquently about Berlin’s writing in their introductory essays than I can. Its pared back nature is what appeals to me. There’s an immediacy in her short, crisp, carefully constructed sentences – from the graphic, panicky tooth extraction of ‘Doctor H. A. Moynihan’ to the gentleness of drunks recognising desperation in ‘Unmanageable’. Her material is often raw but there’s always a wry humour in her delivery. Her observation is sharp and her matter-of-fact economy makes its impact all the more striking: ‘Poor people wait a lot. Welfare, unemployment lines, laundromats, phone booths, emergency rooms, jails, etc.’ perfectly conveys the deadening boredom and exhaustion of the dispossessed and the likely downward spiral of their fortunes. ‘I’m having a hard time writing about Sunday. Getting the long hollow feeling of Sundays. No mail and faraway lawn mowers, the hopelessness’ brings us up short in what had appeared a playful story about choosing a narrator’s point of view. It’s quite a feast and for now I’m sated but I’ll be back for second helpings.

13 thoughts on “A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin: Saving some for later”

  1. Sounds wonderful! I’ve just finished Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking (3 short stories and a novella) and I’m on to The Long Gaze Back, a collection of short stories by Irish women writers, so I’m on a bit of a short story roll at the moment too. I find it’s nice to not read too many at once, to let them settle in your mind….

    1. I’m a recent convert! I think you’re right – the secret is to read one or two then put the book aside. I read some of these on a train journey, looking out of the window after each one which is something I rarely do. I loved the McCann, too. I’ve long been a fan of his writing but haven’t come across The Long Gaze Back. One for the list.

    1. Me neither, but I’ve surprised myself by how many short story collections I’ve reviewed here theis year! Berlin has a very sharp eye for social observation not to mention living quite a rackety life herself.

    1. It’s great, isn’t it. They’re a useful palate cleanser, Annabel. I’ve finally learnt not to swallow collections whole.

    1. Aren’t they, just! You’re spot on about letting them settle. I think I’ve got over my tendency to gulp down short stories and have learnt to appreciate them more as a result.

  2. Great review, Susan. I completely agree about the immediacy and raw quality of these stories; there is something very authentic and emotionally truthful about these pieces. I took my time with this collection, reading a story or two a day over three or four weeks, As you say, they’re not to be rushed.

    1. Thank you, Jacqui. I’d agree absolutely about your emotionally truthful point. It can make them painful reading at times but immensely rewarding.

  3. Pingback: Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin: An unexpected treat | A life in books

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