When great works of art or literature are only discovered after the creator has left our realm, do we mourn the fact that they missed the fan fair surrounding their work and also the potential for what could have been if they had been recognised during their life time, or, do we celebrate the fact that they have now been brought to the forefront, the fruits of their labour reaching the loving public as it always should have? This is certainly something to be debated when we consider today’s author, Lucia Berlin. When discovering Berlins fiction and, hand in hand with that, more about her personal life, I was struck by the similarities to photographer Vivian Maier. Both were extraordinary women who left an impression on all they met, creating magic from their very fingertips as they observed the world around them. Sadly for both, it was not until after their deaths that their true genius became evident to a wide audience. ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’, the book we’ll discuss today, has recently shot up the bestseller charts with readers intrigued by this catchy title and tome of a collection of short stories, yet it’s rise to fame has arrived a whole eleven years after Berlins death.
Usually we would jump straight into a review of the book here, but with Berlin I think it is important to understand some of her own story before we do so, with reasons why becoming more evident as we go on. Berlin was a woman who seemed to fit several lifetimes into her 68 years. She never appeared to plant roots in any one place, moving from Idaho, Chile, Arizona and Montana as a young girl before pitching up in New Mexico, California and Colorado, to name but a few, when she was older. Married 3 times and with 4 sons, Berlin supported her family in a plethora of jobs, teacher, hospital ward clerk, cleaner, physicians assistant..again the list could go on. I think after reading the above most of us could do with a sit down and a cup of tea, but Berlin had no such luck as her lot was not an easy one. After the death of her mother, suspected suicide, she also found herself in the role of carer for her sister who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Berlin performed this role while suffering herself from double scoliosis (leading to a punctured lung), alcoholism and later on in life, lung cancer. When you hold this door stopper of a book in your hands you cannot help but wonder how she managed to produce not just so many short stories but so many magnificent pieces of work at that when most of us could barely pause for breath with these pressures.
As mentioned previously, an understanding of our authors life is something to be interwoven with this book, her vast life experiences inform her writing and shape her narratives. We often talk about the ‘fiction’ of authors like Karl Ove Knausguard as if it is some new phenomenon, burying through his childhood and pulling out memories to lay down on the page but not prepared to hold it up as autobiography. The French, as always, have handily proved us with a term for this genre, ‘auto-fiction’, but Berlin has been doing just this since Knausguard was but a tot running around in his nappy. Her son explains perfectly:
“Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter; the story is the thing”
So to the book itself. For fans of short stories this is always going to catch the eye with the inducement of a foreword by one of the true gems of the short story landscape, Lydia Davis. I must confess I am often hasty with an introduction, skipping through them to get to the text proper. I have found myself admonished now after being totally charmed by Davis and her wonderful welcome. You can feel her passion for Berlin in every line and the respect she feels for a writer in her tradition.
There are 43 short stories in this collection and you are hooked from the get go. Berlin’s writing is direct and to the point, often feeling like she is having a frank conversation with you about her current family or work situation. With sharp, staccato sentences she can shock you with emotional bluntness, the protagonists may be to the point but the words they offer are real and raw. Berlin once commented after her time working for physicians that in their reports “no words are written that aren’t necessary” and this is clearly something that informed her writing style. As a reader herself she looked to Chekhov for inspiration, admiring how he could always hold an impartial tone with any character.
These stories were so fresh and new to me, amplifying women’s voices from corners that may be slightly grubby and hard to manoeuvre out of but finding the beauty in them still. I loved the way characters would pop up again and again so the collection became interweaved and a journey itself, something Lucia Berlin certainly went on, blessing us with her take on a life truly lived.
Berlin died peacefully in her bed, favourite book in hand. As tribute to a phenomenal woman it would make me happy to see others holding her fiction in their hands, whether too late or not, her time is now – let’s not miss it this time.
A Manual for Cleaning Women £14.99 (Picador)
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