I hadn’t heard of Lucia Berlin before picking up this book but soon became engrossed in this collection of vivid, moving and surprising short stories. The author was born in Alaska in 1936 and lived in Chile, New Mexico, California and Colorado, places in which many of her stories are set. A Manual for Cleaning Women is a selection of stories published between the 1970s and 1990s. Although she was appreciated and celebrated by readers during her lifetime, it seems that this posthumous collection has brought her to a wider audience and greater acclaim.
I really liked this book and read most of the stories over a few days. Because some of the same settings, characters and themes appear repeatedly in the stories, I found I read the book as quickly as a novel, while still appreciating the impact of each story on its own. Set mainly in Chile, Mexico and the USA, the stories mix realistic detail with the unexpected, and certainly took me, as a reader with no experiences of those places, into a different world.
Some of the stories look back to unconventional and sometimes difficult childhoods and adolescence (Stars and Saints). Others are set in adult life, veering from the glamorous and adventurous to the precarious or lonely, or encompassing all those within the same story. Some describe the experience of alcoholism in an ironic and self-aware way (Her First Detox, 502). Often the stories explore the protagonists’ experiences at work, teaching, nursing and cleaning, in a witty and absorbing style (Emergency Room Notebook, 1977, El Tim).
One of my favourite stories is Toda Luna, Toda Ano, about a woman who travels to Mexico after her husband dies and joins a group of locals who teach her to dive. I also thought Here It Is Saturday, a story about a creative writing class in prison, was brilliant, for its dialogue, wit and emotional impact. Good and Bad, a story about a wealthy teenage girl and her Communist teacher, was also memorable. A few of the stories are very sad, especially those about grief, and the author doesn’t go for the sentimental or easy resolution. At other moments she somehow captures happiness and vitality in a story’s vivid details.
I’d describe the writing style as plain but evocative. The stories are often written in a first-person and colloquial narrative that is intimate and amusing. I have read that Lucia Berlin has been compared to Jean Rhys and Raymond Carver. I can see the truth in both of these comparisons but also think her way of looking at the world is very original. I would highly recommend this anthology.