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Book Review: A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin

Berlin, Lucia. A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories. London: Picador, 2015. Print.

Berlin’s stories are interwoven, almost as a memoir. The old writers’ saw, ‘write what you know’ is visible throughout the work. She brings her story to life in a manner that enables the reader to feel the emotions that her characters’ experience. “It has been seven years since you died” (386). The emotional pull hits like a hammer.

Berlin has no fear of reflecting on life as she addresses addiction, alcoholism, sexual abuse, suicide, and depression. Throughout the stories, she weaves a web about an abusive, alcoholic, and suicidal mother.

Her work is dark, depression laden. We see this darkness when the protagonist is contemplating her sister’s death. “Every day you’ve said good-bye a little. Oh just get it over with, for God’s sake” (381). Her multifaceted characters can turn an otherwise sad scene into one of joy. While waiting for the sister to die, she moves her under the bedroom window where she sees the sky and feels the warmth of the sun. The reader shares the feeling of beauty and warmth.

Berlin uses imagery to show contradiction, despair, and lack of hope within her characters. Through it all, her work is believable and full of imagery. No more so than in this paragraph from “Electric Car, El Paso”.

Mrs. Snowden … passed me fig newtons wrapped in talcum Kleenex. The cookie expanded in my mouth like Japanese flowers, like a burst pillow. I gagged and wept. Mamie smiled and passed me a sachet-dusted handkerchief, whispered to Mrs. Snowden, who was shaking her head (157).

Not only does she bring scenes to life through imagery, she does the same with objects such as her mother’s ratty old coat. “It had a fur collar. Oh the poor matted fur, once silver, yellowed now like the peed-on backsides of polar bears in zoos” (245).

Everything she writes is realistic. Her characters are believable, imbued with human traits, blemishes, and goodness. All are flawed, allowing the reader to understand their actions and motives.

Many of the characters in this collection reappear in various stories. We have plenty of time to get to know them. But even in stories about one character, she develops them in-depth, with simple phrases and words. In “Mijito” we learn a great deal about the young Mexican girl Amelia. Berlin puts us into the girl’s life as she cares for her infant son. We experience abandonment, abuse, unintended child abuse, hopelessness, and terror. We know Amelia before she accidentally kills the infant. “’ Amelia. Do you know that Jesus is dead?’ ‘Yes, I know. Lo se.’ And then in English she said, ‘Fuck a duck. I’m sorry’” (355).

Berlin is non-judgmental. She presents the world as it is, blemishes and all.