Like a lot of talented people, Lucia Berlin is someone who wasn’t celebrated during her time. Atleast not the way she deserved. In A Manual For Cleaning Women she displays a wit and observation of people that is rare to find. It strikes me as particularly unique because most of these things are things that I’ve started wondering now that I’ve read this collection.
Take for instance, the story Point Of View. In this she talks about what makes a story appealing to the reader. The implications of a story being narrated in the first person as opposed to the benefits of it being narrated in third person. One leaves the reader embarrassed while the other leaves the reader curious. Or the story Dear Conchi which is told in a series of letters written from college about a romance. In 502 she talks about the steps in recovery, making amends, and of her steadfast friendship with other drunks.
She speaks about embarrassment without making you feel embarrassed and about struggles without worrying you. There’s a sort of detachment with which she writes that somehow makes you feel more intimately connected with her characters. Her characters who are mostly single divorced mothers; nurses, cleaning ladies, alcoholics etc all of whom seem to be relatable to her or are a version of her at some point in her life. It’s intense and intimate, almost making the reader want to take a break to catch their breath after finishing one story.
The stories Mama and A Manual For Cleaning Women stood out particularly to me. Mama, a conversation between her and her sister who was dying of cancer, is about how one felt jealous of the other for having been less troubled by their mother. And the title story is about a recently widowed woman who’s now cleaning houses for a living, even her own friend’s houses where she used to live before, and is grappling with the loss that she’s not given herself time to feel yet.
There are portions I couldn’t understand. References, mainly bible related, that had me jumping onto Google to get. But that didn’t take away from what a wonderful collection this was. These stories are dark, yet they have a sliver of light showing through in places. They have a quality to them that makes you remember another story when you read one but they aren’t repetitive. Yes, the themes are all similar, abuse, bullying, loneliness, addiction but they aren’t repetitive. (like I am being)
It is a shame that she’s being recognised so much later than her time, but better late than never. I definitely recommend reading this collection. Not if you are a newbie to short stories and certainly not all in one go. Enjoy this one sip at a time and only one glass a day. No more. It might leave you dizzy and gasping for breath.
The stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women make for one of the most remarkable unsung collections in twentieth-century American fiction.
With extraordinary honesty and magnetism, Lucia Berlin invites us into her rich, itinerant life: the drink and the mess and the pain and the beauty and the moments of surprise and of grace. Her voice is uniquely witty, anarchic and compassionate. Celebrated for many years by those in the know, she is about to become – a decade after her death – the writer everyone is talking about. The collection will be introduced by Lydia Davis
I requested a review copy which was kindly provided by the publisher, but opinions expressed are my own.