Manual for Cleaning Women – short stories by Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1963. Credit: Buddy Berlin/The Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin

This book was absolutely f*cking fantastic! I loudly join the choir of people preaching the gospel of Lucia Berlin.

And I have no idea where to begin … so let’s start with the back cover:

A Manual for Cleaning Women compiles the best work of the legendary short-story writer Lucia Berlin. With the grit of Raymond Carver, the humour of Grace Paley, and a blend of wit and melancholy all her own, Berlin crafts miracles from the every day, uncovering moments of grace in the laundromats and halfway houses of the American Southwest, in the homes of the Bay Area upper class, among switchboard operators and struggling mothers, hitchhikers and bad Christians.

Readers will revel in this remarkable collection from a master of the form and wonder how they’d ever overlooked her in the first place.

In Silence, the narrator says “I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don’t actually ever lie.” And I guess that is true for Lucia Berlin and for the whole book. Most stories are very clearly about her own life and leave you with a great longing to know what happened after the last sentence. And sometimes you do get lucky and get another story with the same aliases. The scary thing though is not knowing how much is fiction and how much reality, as some of the stories are absolutely heartbreaking.

Yes, in the stories it happens to L.B., or Carlotta, or Dolores, or Lucille. But in 1990 she said:

“Everything I write is autobiographical. I don’t know why I have my name in some stories and not in others. Come to think of it I don’t know why I don’t have my name in all of them.”

So it was Lucia who grew up with a cruel and distant mother and grandfather. It was Lucia who worked all kinds of demanding jobs and raised four sons while struggling with alcoholism for decades. It was Lucia who took care of her dying sister for a year. It was she who said, “Everything good and bad that has occurred in my life has been predictable and inevitable, especially the choices and actions that have made sure I am now utterly alone.”

The sad things pile up and you really start to feel for her. Though I am sure she never would have wanted any pity. “The only reason I have lived so long is that I let go of my past. Shut the door on grief on regret on remorse. If I let them in, just one self-indulgent crack, whap, the door will fling open gales of pain ripping through my heart blinding my eyes with shame breaking cups and bottles knocking down jars shattering windows stumbling bloody on spilled sugar and broken glass terrified gagging until with a final shudder and sob I shut the heavy door. Pick up the pieces one more time.” (from Homing)

The writing is wonderful – the exact way I love it most – simple, quick and seemingly easy until you realize how much you really absorbed on the fly. Reading in bed and thinking you’re too tired to read another story but read the first line. And, damn it, hooked again. That just keeps happening with Lucia Berlin’s stories. They hook you right from the first line and move at an unnoticed speed to the end.

In the introduction, Stephen Emerson said it best:

But if her writing has a secret ingredient, it is suddenness. In the prose itself, shift and surprise produce a liveliness that is a mark of her art.
Her prose syncopates and hops, changes cadences, changes the subject. That’s where a lot of its crackle is.
Speed in prose is not something you hear much about. Certainly not enough.

I started folding the page corners of the stories I especially liked, but had to give up soon because every second story was ‘especially good’.

It is the end of November, so I can say that this book is, if not the best, then at least in the Top 3 of this year’s books. I very much recommend a read.