Recently two events reminded me of Lucia Berlin and her remarkable collection of stories, A Manual For Cleaning Women. There is a television series out, The Cleaning Lady. But what got me was Author Chip Livingston mentioning her on FaceBook. I went into my notes and found a piece I wrote about this wonderful book.
To not give away too much, I removed most of what I originally wrote. It is a wonderful read.
Berlin’s stories are interwoven, almost as memoir. In A Manual For Cleaning Women, the reader can imagine the stories are interconnected memoirs. The old writers saw, write what you know is visible throughout the work. She brings her knowledge and experiences to life so that we, the readers, understand the emotion that she and her characters experience. “It has been seven years since you died.” The emotional pull hits the reader like a hammer.
Berlin has no fear of reflecting on her life experiences as she addresses addiction, alcoholism, sexual abuse, suicide, and depression. She weaves a web about an abusive, alcoholic, and suicidal mother throughout the stories. She tells the reader about her grandfather, who sexually abused her and her younger sister.
There is a similarity in the down-to-earth and straightforward style with Alice Munro; both speak in the voice of their characters. There is no pretentiousness, no judgment. Unlike Munro, her work seems always to be dark depression. In one scene, we see this darkness when the protagonist contemplates her sister Sally’s death. “Every day, you’ve said good-bye a little. Oh, just get it over with, for God’s sake.” Anyone who has experienced the slow death of a loved one understands this completely. However, she can turn an otherwise sad scene into one of joy. One example is while waiting for Sally to die, she moves her under the bedroom window. Sally sees the sky and feels the warmth of the sun. The reader shares the feeling of beauty and warmth.
Having lived in Alameda County, California, for fifty years, I’m able to recognize many of the settings and the accuracy of Berlin’s work. Her description, “the affluent foggy Montclair hills…. Beneath Zion Lutheran church is a big black-and-white sign that says WATCH OUT FOR FALLING ROCKS.” I once lived in Zion church as the caretaker. I can verify that the sign has been there for at least fifty years.
Berlin weaves her protagonist’s story in and around the other characters in the collection.
In one story, Berlin changes format and tells the entire story in a series of letters to Conchi. The letters flow and give the reader a timeline of the character’s life. Beginning with college and meeting a man with whom she falls in love. There is joy in her affair cannot that will not be long lived. Her parents’ object, take her out of school, and force her to go to Europe. When she tells her lover, he knows they are finished. He tells her that it’s over, “you’ll… marry some asshole.” In typical Berlin style, she destroys any hope of happiness.
Berlin’s work is full of contradiction, despair, and lack of hope. But 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, . . ..”
Not only does she bring scenes to life through imagery, but 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 throughout the collection. We have plenty of time to get to know them. But even in stories about one character, Berlin develops them in depth, with simple phrases and words.
As with all her stories, the dialogue is magnificent.
An unmentioned strength in Berlin’s writing comes from another trait she shares with Alice Munro. She is non-judgmental. She presents the world as it is, blemishes and all.
Ramona Ausubel Marie-Helene Bertino
Either Romona Ausubel (No One is Here Except All of Us) or Marie-Helene Bertino (2 AM at the Cat” s Pajamas) suggested I read this work. I can’t recall which, (maybe both)so I’ll say thank you to the two finest mentors and authors I ever had the opportunity to work with. THANK YOU!
Berlin, Lucia. A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories. Picador, 2015.
I will tell you about books I’ve read and enjoyed from time to time. When I do, you can expect reviews to appear elsewhere. gdc
She sounds like a really good writer. The imagery that you cited was powerful. It’s also interesting that she wrote short stories that were loosely tied together. I’d never heard about her before reading your blog entry. I’ll definitely have to put her on my list. Thanks for sharing this with us.
Wow. My TBR list just got longer. I’m a big Alice Munro fan, as well as an admirer of fearless, lyrical memoir. And this: “In one scene, we see this darkness when the protagonist contemplates her sister Sally’s death. ‘Every day, you’ve said good-bye a little. Oh, just get it over with, for God’s sake.'” — just about guts me, as both of my beloved sisters are being slowly whittled away by chronic neurological diseases. I’d heard of “Manual” previously, but now it’s a must-read.