A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
Read: 26 July - 3 August 2020
Release year: 2015
Another recommendation, another success! Lucia Berlin's A Manual for Cleaning Women is a brilliant collection of short stories based on her own life. Lucia's stories didn't achieve a lot of success during her lifetime until this book was released 11 years after her death. I think it is a shame that she never got to experience this success herself as she is an amazing writer.
The 43 short stories in this book are presented in a very clever way. In each of them the female protagonist has a different name which makes it seem like they are random stories about different women. However, the other characters in the stories - the mother, the sister, the sons etc. - all keep the same names throughout the book, while also several settings return for the events. How far this book is autobiographical I can't say, but they are definitely based on the author's own life. One other thing that keeps you on your toes when you are reading this book is that the stories are not presented in a chronological order. You never know about which 'Lucia' you are going to read this time.
I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don't actually ever lie.
Lucia's writing style is truly a joy. It is like one of your friends is talking to you about a crappy day, without holding back any details. She is direct, honest, raw, sarcastic, funny and overall just very entertaining. She describes the things she has been through in such a colourful, humorous way that even the most depressing stories leaves you with a smile on your face.
I don’t mind saying awful things, as long as I can make them funny.
Lucia's life has been so eventful that I'm not surprised she could write so many stories about them. It seems like she has lived so many more lives than the average person. She lived her childhood on the move as her father worked as a mining engineer. The family lived in Idaho, Montana, Arizona and Chile. As an adult she also moved around a lot, living in New Mexico, Northern and Southern California and Colorado. Further, Lucia had a lot of different jobs - cleaning woman, nurse, high school teacher, nurse, physician's assistant, translator, switchboard operator - was already married three times at the age of 32 and had four sons. She endured childhood abuse and scoliosis, battled with alcoholism and took care of her sister when diagnosed with cancer.
Some of the stories were really hard to read and had a huge impact on me. In Tiger Bites a 19-year-old pregnant protagonist gets intimidated by her cousin into getting an illegal abortion in Mexico. In the clinic she changes her mind, but then sees another 'patient' hemorrhage on the floor.
In Carmen the protagonist, again pregnant but older, is bullied by her partner into retrieving heroin across the border in Mexico as she is 'Anglo, pregnant and sweet looking'. Over there she gets ordered by the dealer to transport the drugs in a balloon inside her. In fear of her unborn baby she pretends to comply but puts it in her bra instead.
He was a devil, could read my mind. "If you don't put it there I will. It's not going to break. Your baby is all wrapped up in a drug-proof bag, safe against every evil of the outside world. Once he's born, sugar, hey, that's another story."
Outside of the house she gets robbed and almost raped by two teenage boys. Once home in the US, she doesn't receive the nicest welcome by her partner and because of all of the stress her water breaks. As her partner already had a fix of the heroin he is in no way helpful. The baby gets born too early (at 7 months) and unfortunately doesn't survive.
In Mijito she introduces us to an immigrant woman who tries her best for her ailing son, but as she doesn't speak the language, doesn't have any money or any help whatsoever, this turns into an utter disaster. At the end of the chapter the immigrant gets robbed by two women in a homeless shelter. When the women return to the shelter drunk and are annoyed as the baby won't stop crying, they slap her and try to take the baby away from her. She tells a physician's assistant, probably Lucia, what happened:
Jesus kept crying.
"I couldn't think about what to do. I shook him to make him be quiet so I could think about what to do."
I held her tiny hands in mine. "Was he crying when you shook him?"
"Then what happened?"
"Then he stopped crying."
"Amelia. Do you know that Jesus is dead?"
"Yes, I know. Lo sé."
A Manual for Cleaning Women is a truly amazing collection of short stories. I love it when writers are not afraid to expose themselves in their work. Lucia doesn't feel like she needs to edit herself to make the events more acceptable for the reader. She writes her experiences down in a very detailed way, which also includes the bad and the ugly. I'm glad I got introduced to this book and I can't wait to read it all over again somewhere in the future.
Other amazing quotes from the book:
Poor people wait a lot. Welfare, unemployment lines, laundromats, phone booths, emergency rooms, jails, etc.
Anybody says he knows just how someone else feels is a fool.
American women are very uncomfortable about having servants. They don't know what to do while you are here.
God sends drunks blackouts because if they knew what they had done they would surely die of shame.
Advice to cleaning women: Take everything that your lady gives you and say thank you. You can leave it on the bus, in the crack.
I like working in Emergency - you meet men there, anyway.
As a rule, never work for friends. Sooner or later they resent you because you know so much about them. Or else you’ll no longer like them, because you do.
The only reason I have lived so long is that I let go of my past. Shut the door on grief, on regret, on remorse.
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.
I got old. All of a sudden, de repente. I walk with difficulty. I even drool. I leave the door unlocked in case I die in my sleep, but it's more likely I'll go endlessly on until I get put away someplace. I am already dotty.... It's not so strange that I talk to my cat but I feel silly because he is totally deaf.