Lucia Berlin’s short story collection A Manual for Cleaning Women is one of those books you never want to end. I know that is how it has been for me. In fact, I dragged it out as slowly as I could, reading one story at a time and putting it away, savoring the story, thinking about it and sometimes reading it a second time. I am obviously a fast reader, but I have spent six weeks reading A Manual for Cleaning Women because it is that good. I am finished now, most stories read two or three times over and I am sad. I want it to never end.
Berlin’s story-telling is so simple, but in the way that simple is the hardest thing possible to do because simplicity requires a raw honesty that we all shy away from. But she doesn’t, she is fearless in writing about her own struggle and her own pain, whether she is writing about the violence and neglect of her childhood, her struggles with alcoholism, addiction and prison, her failed marriages, her failings as a parent, the slow and painful death of her sister, it’s all too honest to ignore, to pass over quickly, to move on. Everything demands that we readers think about it and not justin admiration for her craft, but in respect for her grit.
She mines small things for profound insight, like watching a murder of crows settling into a tree across the street and realizing that if you missed their landing in the tree, you would have no idea there were dozens of crows in the tree. They do it every evening and have done so for years, but she never noticed, which gets her wondering now in the winter of her lifetime. “ But what bothers me is that I only accidentally noticed them. What else have I missed? How many times in my life have I been, so to speak, on the back porch, not the front porch? What would have been said to me that I failed to hear? What love might there have been that I didn’t feel?”
From her writing, you know that she was surrounded by music throughout her life, lots of jazz music and you can feel it in the way she writes these snappy lists that set the scene, a kind of syncopated rhythm in prose. Her stories are about her life, loosely fictionalized, but they follow the outlines and occupations of her life experience, mostly with the down and out, but also with the elites of Chile where her father was a mining executive. She seamlessly crosses cultures from Anglo to Mexican and back again, reflecting her varied upbringing in Chile, Mexico, and Texas.
She’s funny and joyful, even when the circumstances are bleak. Not always, some stories are just too painful, but even then, there is a wryness, a determination not be defined by the worst and most awful of life’s experiences that reveal this core of humanity, decency and compassion that make me envy those who knew her as a friend.
She drops the wall between reader and writer. In “Point of View.” Consider this:
“Imagine Chekhov’s story “Grief” in the first person. An old man telling us his son has just died. We would feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, even bored, reacting precisely as the cabman’s fares in the story did. But Chekhov’s impartial voice imbues the man with dignity. We absorb the author’s compassion for him and are deeply moved, if not by the son’s death, by the old man talking to his horse.
I think it’s because we are all pretty insecure.”
I cannot recommend this book enough. It’s early in the year still, but it is quite possible this will be the best book I read this year. It is going on my lifetime list of great books that everyone should read. That means you should read it now, not later.