A Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin - book review: Authentic and awful

Picador - £16.99

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The Independent Culture

“I don’t mind telling people awful things if I can make them funny,” said the American writer Lucia Berlin, who died in November 2004, on her birthday. Now her brilliance is being recognised with this selection of 43 stories – more than half her life’s work – which should by all rights see her as lauded as Jean Rhys or Raymond Carver. And it is full of awful things made funny, such as the argument, in the story “Mama”, between two sisters discussing their mother’s death. “I don’t believe it. Sally, you’re actually jealous because I got all the suicide notes?”

These stories, written from the 1960s to the 1990s, are often based on Berlin’s own experiences. They ring with authenticity, not just because of this, but because so many are slices of life, short and with no need of an artificial structure to support them. Most are set where Berlin lived, in California and Mexico, and events from her life recur, such as jobs in domestic service and nursing. The title story starts out as a wry guide for other cleaning women to the narrator’s various employers (“These people I worked for each have enough uppers and downers to put a Hell’s Angel away for 20 years”), then morphs into a devastating lament for a lost lover (“I can’t handle you being dead, Ter. But you know that.”).

Berlin’s humane, empathetic ear gives the stories bite. In “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977”, a nurse tells a recently bereaved widower to stop crying. “It simply won’t help the situation, Mr Adderly.” “Nothing will help. It’s all I can do. Let me alone,” he replies. Running through the book is the experience of Berlin’s struggles with alcoholism: one story encapsulates volumes in its simple title: “Her First Detox”. In another, “Unmanageable”, she makes a four-page thriller from a woman’s efforts to survive until morning when the liquor stores open. “She wished she had a dog to walk. I know, she laughed, I’ll ask the neighbours if I can borrow the dog. Sure. None of the neighbours spoke to her anymore.” But even here, she is funny, reporting dialogue from a detox unit: “Stop your shakin’, woman, messes the TV.”

The closeness of Berlin’s stories to her life, combined with her intimate, sociable tone, means that unlike most collections, A Manual For Cleaning Women benefits from being read sequentially, like a gripping, deconstructed memoir. It gave me the faith in literature shared by the narrator of “Silence”. She is told by her school librarian that if there’s anything she wants to know, she can find the answer in a book. “This was a wonderful thing to hear, and I believed her.”

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