Part of what we do at Daunt Books Publishing is unearth neglected classics – and I love a literary find. So the story behind this collection: A Manual for Cleaning Women was irresistible to me.
Lucia Berlin is perhaps the greatest American writer you’ve never heard of. She was born in Alaska in 1936 and began publishing stories in journals and magazines at the age of twenty-four, but she lived in relative obscurity and was never part of a particular literary scene. By 1968, Berlin had been divorced three times, had four sons, and developed a serious alcohol problem. But in the 90s, having finally prevailed over her alcoholism, she won the American Book Award with her collection Homesick. She published two further collections before her death in 2004.
Her stories, many of which are collected in A Manual for Cleaning Women, often depict scenes from her own colourful and dramatic life, and reading them, there’s an overwhelming sense of the mess and chaos of real lives. But this isn’t autobiographical fiction, her stories are both a transformation, and a re-shaping of the truth.
Set in the unglamorous and seedier parts of the Americas: Western mining towns, New Mexico strip malls, the greasy edges of Mexico City, these stories are peopled with characters living on the peripheries: teenage mothers, cleaning ladies, winos, bruised and vulnerable people, all of them.
Berlin wrote with a vibrancy that crackles on the page, and with a rawness that sometimes slips into gallows humour. Her stories are lyrical, often darkly funny, and written with an almost off-the-cuff casualness that is so stylish and appealing.
In one story a girl helps her cantankerous dentist grandfather pull his own teeth, another girl is expelled from school for striking a nun, in yet another: ‘Her First Detox’, written with remarkable concision, a woman plays poker with her fellow alcoholics at the drying-out clinic, vowing never to drink again.
Berlin doesn’t ask us to pity her characters, there’s too much spark and fizz, too many jokes in her writing for that, but she goes to the heart of ordinary human lives: replete with all their imperfect sadness and joy. At times her surprising, stunning writing recalls Lydia Davis (who actually wrote the foreword to A Manual for Cleaning Women) but she also reminds me of Chekhov: her writing is full of compassion for her characters – we might be appalled by their behaviour, but we certainly understand them.
A Manual for Cleaning Women is a collection of stories about second chances – and this new publication by Picador is a second chance for Lucia Berlin. I urge everyone to experience the thrill of discovering her.
Laura Macaulay is the publisher at Daunt Books