A Manual for Cleaning Women — Lucia Berlin

Squalor and alcoholism feature prominently in these short stories based on Berlin’s life. Many of the stories concern marginalised people: they suffer so much injustice but still manage to keep going. Even so, I wouldn’t describe the stories as uplifting.

I picked up this book because I had read about it in the London Review of Books, and also because it had a foreword by Lydia Davis.

There are common threads and characters through some of the stories — one of my favourites is an older woman who goes on holiday and learns to scuba dive. She appears in a couple of the less-squalid stories, where she is initially a bit uptight but learns to loosen up quite a lot. Those stories are easy to read but still have a certain power and directness.

Even though these are fictions, apparently Berlin used a lot of her own experiences in them. Reading all the stories together, I feel as if I have viewed her life through a kaleidoscopic lens. It looks like a life full of terrible and wonderful things. I’m glad she was a writer.

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