I don’t read short stories very often, but Kat (@redwavereads) was so enthusiastic about this collection that I had to give it a try.
At the time, Lucia Berlin was completely unknown to me, which, now that I have read her, seems a real shame.
Berlin was incredibly talented. And even this falls short to qualify her. She was — still is, as death certainly does not change anything to that–, the epitome of the Writer : able to draw beauty from the painful or ugly, humour from the tragic, and intensity from the common.
“He looked at me, aghast, said ‘How terrible!’ and fled. He avoided me completely after that morning, and it wasn’t my imagination. There was no way I could explain that it had all happened so fast, that I wasn’t smiling away at the cats chewing the birds. It was that my happiness about the sweet peas and the finches hadn’t had time to fade.”
Her stories were, well, short. But she managed to conjure up in a few pages, such a sensation of intimacy with her protagonists! Across the different stories, some of them were actually recurrent. I enjoyed being able to join the dots then, and draw the links with some previous encounters.
I am not sure how the order of the stories was decided, but although I adored some of the first stories, the second half of the collection got even better for me. From “Fool To Cry” her writing gained such a raw, intense poetry. The kind of writing that comes from experience and perspective, of looking back with mature eyes (Or maybe by that time I was just in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate them). Anyway, I loved how honest, simple and yet so evocative these stories were. Also, she had such an exquisite sense of rhythm. Her stories balanced and sharp, switching between the rapid and the languid.
“Damned if he didn’t recite a sonnet by Shakespeare. Willie. His deep voice above the insanity of jail noise.”
After reading a few facts about her life, it is evident that all she wrote was to some extent, autobiographical, in some part more romanticised than others. A sharp observer, she managed the perfect balance between being a direct protagonist , and finding the distance necessary to draw the big picture, and extract the essence of all the events she went through.
“Long pale blond hair and yellow-brown eyes. Her smile though, no, it was her laugh, a dusky, deep cascading laughter that caught the joy, implied and mocked the sorrow with every joy.”
From reading about her life and reading her, you understand what a strong woman Berlin was. Not perfect by any means, but free and honest. Uncompromising and lucid. She was married three times, and suffered from alcoholism a large part of her life. She also suffered from a scoliosis, that made braces necessary from an early age and impaired her breathing in the late stages of her life. She had a complicated relationship with her alcoholic mother , and grew up in a somewhat… dysfunctional family. She had to move a lot during her life, went through some financial hardship and times of uncertainty. A full life indeed. And not always easy. Marked by affliction, loss, and bruising love stories.
“I go for months without thinking of anyone but the living, and then Buddy will come with a joke, or there you vividly are, evoked by a tango or an agua de sandia. If only you could speak to me. You’re as bad as my deaf cat.”
From this intense existence and her acute sense of observation, she drew an impressive body of work. Stories that tell all that life is : the joys and the pains, the ugly and the beautiful, the petty and the grand, the (bad) choices, the (absence of) regrets, the inevitability of death and mostly, the sweeping force of love.
Conclusion : A collection of warm and affecting stories that demonstrate a deep insight into the human soul and an exceptionnel keenness of observation. Read it if you are willing to take a lesson of exceptional writing and delve into a vibrant, unforgettable life.
P.S : I waited until after finishing the stories to read the forewords and introduction, and I was so glad to see my own enthusiasm for the collection so well put into words and new layers of her talent unveiled before my untrained eyes. In Lydia Davis’ very first words : ” Lucia Berlin’s stories are electric, they buzz and crackle as the live wired touch. And in response, the reader’s mind, too, beguiled, enraptured, comes alive, all synapses firing. This is the way we like to be, when we’re reading — using our brains, feeling our hearts beat.” I wholeheartedly second that. Now excuse me, I have to reread this wonder.
If you’re willing to live the same blissful experience, head over there.
2 thoughts on “A Manual For Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin”
Thoughtful review! I’m hoping to read this and her more recent collection, Evening in Paradise, sometime soon.
Ooh I did not know about this one, and when doing some research I learnt there was another book “Welcome Home” (kind of a memoir with also letters and photographs) that was recently released as well. Now I need them both 😬
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