So, Lucia Berlin’s “A Manual for Cleaning Women” (Picador, 2015) was another of the pile I picked up during my Shrewsbury Book Binge a few weeks ago (#Waterstones you’re awesome)! Never heard of her, but the New York Times calls her a “literary genius” and according the blurb, she’s been compared to Raymond Carver, Alice Munro and Anton Chekov– put any author in the same sentence as Master Carver, and I’m gonna give ’em a poke.
Berlin is a short story writer who seems to blend memoir and fiction, blurring the line between narrator and author to the point where you accept it as real or not, and don’t mind either way. She’s also, and how can I put this without upsetting the M.A in Creative Writing Set– (Yes, I know you’re there, I can hear you breathing. Stop angsting, I’m not having a dig, honest)– Although she’s clearly highly educated and did actually teach Literature, her stories don’t inhabit that world. There are no polite, well-spoken olive eaters (that was also not a dig at my fellow Lefties, BTW). Berlin sets her stories in launderettes and hospitals and seedy motels with brown walls and grubby sheets, her characters are blue collar, don’t eat well, and drink too much…
And, frankly, it makes a nice change. It kind of feels like we have too few working class, or even lower middle class protagonists out there in Reading World. It’s crap. It means I can’t find characters I relate to (I’m ex-retail, ex-call centre; I live in a 2 up 2 down terrace and drive a £500 car), I want to see more people like me in my fiction, without having to read police procedurals all the time, ta v. much).
So, anyway, what else to tell you…
Lucia Berlin’s writing has a way of getting under your skin, so that her stories, while seeming simple enough on the surface (a woman in a launderette on a Saturday, running out of change for the machine and having to lug her wet bed sheets home, for example), seem to stay with you.
It’s a bit like Carver, but less studied, more effortless. The impression I have of Carver is that each word has been precisely chosen because of its meaning. Berlin is equally precise, but the whole thing feels more fluid– the full impact doesn’t hit you with the final page, but half an hour later when you’re in the bath with your one Big Wine Glass (the other one got smashed and you’re still picking the glass shards out of the bathmat two months later…), and you lie there with the water going cold, thinking, “holy bananas, that’s IT! That’s totally how that feels!”
I could sit here, describing one of her stories to you, but I couldn’t do it justice, and it would sound rubbish, so you’ll just have to go read her for yourself. Now, where’s that Big Wine Glass gone…?