“A Manual for Cleaning Women” by Lucia Berlin

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American Lucia Berlin was born in 1936 in the family of a mining engineer and died on her sixty-eighth birthday, clutching one of her favorite books. She lived in California, Colorado, Chile and Alaska, was beautiful, alcoholic and a hunchback, taught Spanish at school, cleaned other people’s houses, worked as an emergency room nurse, call center operator, huddled in a trailer, got married three times, and gave birth to four sons. In addition, Lucia Berlin wrote stories – only seventy-six pieces, which were published from time to time, but never brought fame or money to their creator. However, in 2015, the prose of Lucia Berlin was destined to repeat the fate of “Stoner” by John Williams: compiled by popular prose writer and critic Steven Emerson, “A Manual for Cleaning Women” compilation, which included about half of all the writer’s texts, became the best-selling The New York Times of the most talked about books in the world.

The fact that during the life of Lucia Berlin, in the sixties, seventies and eighties, her stories were not in demand, perhaps, it does not come as a surprise. Life, masterfully, with almost painful precision cast in them, is capable of enchanting only from a certain distance – that is, not before it irrevocably ends. Similarly, today’s enthusiasm is not surprising, because the only metaphor that comes to mind when trying to describe the prose of Lucia Berlin is a brilliant gleam at once with a multitude of small faces.

In general, faceted fragmentation, strange, unlikely facet of the author’s view, at the same time maintaining the autonomy of each story and at the same time providing the entire collection of semantic unity – almost the main characteristic of “A Manual for Cleaning Women”. Together, the texts of Lucia Berlin tell the same story – the story of the life of the writer herself – but each of them reflects some one of the possibilities for the development of events, which is not always realized in life. From the combination of this kinetic and potential energy, from the addition of what has come true to the unfulfilled, an incredible stereoscopic volume of Lucia Berlin prose is born, which, if anything, can be compared, then with the stories of Raymond Carver or Alice Munro.

A hunchback girl from a Protestant family goes to a Catholic school somewhere in the dusty American South. The same girl – or another one, but very similar to her – helps her half-insane grandfather-dentist to pull out all his teeth for himself. A woman is caring for her father who has fallen into dementia, who sees a little girl’s daughter and relives their joint wanderings around the world. The same – or another – woman puts the coin in the self-service laundry, and now she has nothing to buy laundry detergent. She, who recently lost her husband and thoroughly masks the woe of gossip, rides the bus and gives advice to the housekeepers, like herself. The young mother of four sons — perhaps the same housemaid or her twin — for the first time falls into the drug bed with a fit of delirium tremens. A raised girl teaches Spanish at a convent school. Here she is, only a few years earlier or later – she is thinking of having an abortion, because she has a little son in her arms, and her husband, a budding sculptor, abandoned her. However, she, in another branch of the same story, is a childless widow-teacher who is going to heal spiritual wounds on the Mexican coast.

Dust, boredom, trashy whiskey, monotonously spinning drums in the laundry, unreliable men, exhausting work, sons without names and persons, dreary anticipation, humiliating poverty, rare flashes of joy … Stories Lucia Berlin is just rubbish and everyday husk, without meaning and morals, which are collected in some wondrous way right in front of the reader’s eyes and transformed into the highest standard of art. An extraordinary spectacle and a rare one hundred percent masterpiece on the modern book landscape.


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