Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women

By Polly Mackintosh


”I love houses, all the things they tell me, so that’s one reason I don’t mind working as a cleaning woman. It’s just like reading a book.” Mourning


Image from Buddy Berlin (© 2018 Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin LP)


I had never heard of Lucia Berlin until she arrived in one of our big delivery boxes while working at Waterstone's. For some reason, I couldn’t shelve her. I was drawn in by the cover, a portrait of a woman with heavily kohl-lined eyes and an 80s hairdo, looking confidently away from the camera. She intrigued me. I bought the short story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, and it stayed on my bedside table for months.


When I returned from some time travelling, I picked up Lucia Berlin again and I couldn't put her down. Berlin's prose is spare, sparse and stripped of all irrelevance; it draws you in and it intrigues with such bold statements as “Solitude is an Anglo-Saxon concept.” Dare you disagree?


Berlin was a female pioneer of the realest kind. While working various low-paid jobs (Berlin was a teacher, a switchboard operator and, of course, a cleaning woman), she created some of the most masterful fiction I've ever read. Spinning stories inspired by her own vibrant life, her work has since been labelled autofiction, though this had not been invented when she was writing.


Her fiction plays out against a variety of cultural backdrops. These stories are steeped in the sights, sounds and smells of Mexico and Chile and Colorado, her words twisting and bursting off the page to paint the place at its most real. In Toda Luna, Todo Año, she writes that “Everything in Mexico tasted. Vivid garlic, cilantro, lime. The smells were vivid.” She takes you along with Eloise, the main character, as she eats clams with Mexican divers, goes diving and eventually leaves again as if nothing has happened. But it’s all there, on the page.



Image from Buddy Berlin (© 2018 Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin LP)


Maybe what compels me about Berlin's stories is that her characters are so humble, so normal. What's more, she is funny. 502 is an intelligent, surprising story about the driving ‘offence’ of an ex-alcoholic. She forgets to put the handbrake on and her car rolls down a hill into another parked car. When an officer tries to give her a DWI [Driving While Intoxicated] ticket for “reckless” driving, the “wino” community comes to her support: “If you ain’t doing the D you can’t get the DWI!” A fair point.


The humour in the titular A Manual for Cleaning Women is more subtle, with Berlin delivering a series of wry and rather astute observations: “Women’s voices always rise two octaves when they talk to cleaning women or cats”, or “Cleaning women: You will get a lot of liberated women. First stage is a CR group; second stage is a cleaning woman; third, divorce.’’


It is an amusing directory of the characters that Berlin was clearly well-acquainted with. Yet there is always the sense that beneath the strong female protagonists she portrays, emotions are bubbling and slowly rising to the surface. The narrator talks to a dead lover called Ter throughout and at the end of the story, she finally weeps. For the reader too, it feels like a kind of release.


This is not a glamourised account of a life on the road. For all her humour, Berlin deals with real themes, most notably the alcoholism that she struggled with most of her life. Unmanageable begins with a woman reaching for the bottle of vodka under her mattress. She counts down the minutes until she can get a drink, eventually walking forty-five minutes to the liquor store because her son has taken her car keys. You can feel the heartbreak amongst the juice and cereal of the breakfast table as her son asks, “How the hell did you get a drink?” The lines are blurred: could this be Berlin at her worst?


A Manual for Cleaning Women is not, however, a depressing book. Even at their darkest, Berlin’s short stories depict a lust for life that knows no bounds. She revels in encounters in laundromats, rehab centres and emergency rooms, finding something or someone to inspire in each one. It’s in that first quotation, “I love houses, all the things they tell me”. A Manual for Cleaning Women is an example of how to live life, minus the alcoholism: seeing, feeling, laughing, loving.


Check out Polly’s blog for more of her work