I moved to Donegal on the north-west coast of Ireland to write my first novel. I had been living in a London houseshare, juggling multiple jobs, so when my grandad died, leaving an empty cottage in Donegal, I decided to go there to find time and space to write. The house is in a remote fishing village and I cannot drive. I tutored a local student and cycled to the library every day. The experience was transformative; the landscape is wild and storm-wracked and I finally had a room of my own. I had very little money and no internet connection but I read and read, studying the shapes of novels and working out what kind of writer I might be.
My first novel, Saltwater, is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, told through the lens of a mother-daughter relationship. It is partly about northern, working-class identity, which I hadn’t often seen represented in literary novels. A Manual for Cleaning Women is a collection of short stories about women working all kinds of menial jobs, trying to find their way through the world. The title references the cleaning women that Berlin writes about, but it also centres working-class women as the readers of the anthology; these stories are about us and also for us, which felt radical to me as a working-class woman trying to write my own story, prompting me to consider whom we assume writing is for.
‘My Jockey’ is a short, piercing story which demonstrates Berlin’s power. It is told from the perspective of a woman working in the emergency department of a hospital, looking after a jockey who arrives with broken bones. The piece explores power, gender roles, loneliness, motherhood and the fragility of the human body in Berlin’s stark, direct prose.
First published in Home Sick: New and Selected Stories, Black Sparrow, 1991; also in A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, Picador, 2016
In ‘So Long’ the story of a couple’s relationship is framed around their years of ongoing phone calls. “I love to hear Max say hello,” it begins. “I called him when we were new lovers, adulterers… We’ve been divorced for many years.” I assign this story every time I teach and still, it never fails makes me weep. What moves me is Berlin’s portrait of the friendship that has endured after a marriage has ended, and her depiction of love as one long conversation. The seamless way Berlin moves between the narrator’s present, caring for her terminally ill sister in Mexico, and the heat of her love affair many years earlier with Max, is masterful. As with all her stories, Berlin has a gift for reflection without recrimination, and handling the darker aspects of life—like cancer, or addiction—with grace and levity.
First published in So Long: Stories 1987-1992, Black Sparrow Press, 1993. Collected in A Manual for Cleaning Women: Lucia Berlin Selected Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
This Lucia Berlin story, about two sisters who go away together, is one that I have returned to many times over the years. Partly because of the writing style and the craft of it, partly also simply because of the storyline. I love the way it opens, almost like a film, a wide shot of the hotel where the sisters are staying, then the guests, then all the sights and sounds that bring the story to life, and make it so vivid and electric as is Berlin’s style. There’s a couple of lines here I underscored years ago that I just love for the sounds: the “Snap snap of dealt cards. Mrs Wacher’s hmms. Two no trump. The sizzle of the surf, ice cubes in their glasses.” What I like so much is the way the setting is created, and how from there, the camera moves and then we settle on the two sisters themselves. It’s so atmospheric, rich in description, yet not overdone. I quite like all the gossipy hotel guests too, watching the two sisters and wondering what they are doing together. I find stories about sisters endlessly fascinating; this one is no exception.
Collected in A Manual for Cleaning Women, Picador, 2015
An unflinching yet generous and warm view of a dark world.
First published in Where I Live Now, Black Sparrow Press, 1999. Collected in A Manual for Cleaning Women, Picador, 2015
It’s Christmas time in 1956 and Lou, a soon-to-be-single mother of toddler Ben has arrived in El Paso, Texas for a family reunion. Her glamorous cousin Bella Lynn picks her up from the train and informs her: “Your mama and my mama started drinking and fighting right off the bat. Mama went up on the garage roof and won’t come down. Your mother slit her wrists.”
I knew as soon as I started reading Lucia Berlin’s ‘Tiger Bites’ that it was the Christmas Story for me. My Christmas memories are marked by neighbourhood violence, breakdowns, cold radiators, cash shortages, and a kind of squalor that we all wished would magically go away. ‘Tiger Bites’ takes place in a different time and place, but the trouble that eclipses Christmas in this story seemed so familiar to me that I wanted to claim Lucia Berlin as family when I read it.
Lou is pregnant with a second child and her husband Joe has left her. Rather than finding solace among her family on the Southern US border, she’s persuaded to travel to Juarez, Mexico where, for $500 cash, she can obtain an abortion at a secret clinic. Her journey there and what she witnesses is terrifying. And yet, there’s also a kind of magic to the story. It’s not redemptive, but even as Lou observes and endures terrible things, she conveys what’s happening with humour and warmth. And the terrible things don’t destroy Lou; she keeps going.
First published in A Manual for Cleaning Women, Picador, 2015. Also available online at LitHub.
Chosen by Linda Mannheim. Linda is the author of three books of fiction, most recently This Way to Departures, a collection of stories about people who have left the places they consider home. Her work has appeared in Granta, Catapult Story, Ambit and other magazines. You can read her full Personal Anthology here.
This was the first ever Lucia Berlin story I read, and for a long while after, I didn’t read another. This story is a smooth cinematic saga, about three characters—Maggie, her boyfriend Jesse who is disconcertingly younger than her, and their lawyer Jon Cohen whose own marriage fades when he witnesses and becomes embroiled in the dangerously magnetic pulse of Maggie and Jesse’s love. The story is a saga in the coffee and long drives and cigarettes and drugs and cops and hot searching love sort of way, and reading it gave me a long arc to dwell in; long enough to feel sorrowed by the splinters of Berlin’s carefully plotted mixed-voices narrative, and long enough to thrill at the light-headed rush acquired by following lives lived to their fullest bloom.
First published in Where I Live Now, Black Sparrow Press, 1999
A female John Cheever, heir to Carson McCullers, both of these and neither. These are measured, metered and plotted stories, this one about diving and also not about diving at the same time. She rolls like a feminist Hemingway in this one
In A Manual for Cleaning Women, FSG/Penguin, 2015
‘I flip the vacuum on, lie down under the piano with a rag clutched in my hand just in case. I lie there and hum and think.’
This story is a detached, first-person account of the everyday life of a 1970s cleaner, taking endless cramped, wet, late, vomit-infused buses house to house, dealing with different kinds of women in different kinds of homes. The narrative is created by an overlapping series of domestic vignettes; internal dialogues with her deceased lover Terry; glimpses of street scenes from the bus window; and lists of household objects, bus routes, advert slogans. It is a tense and fragile patchwork of private thoughts existing within public structures, punctuated by advice in parentheses to other cleaners. Berlin gives us a chorus of textual connections, from Braille to billboards, unintelligible notes, TV screens and neon signs, in sharp contrast to the voicelessness of the narrator – when she tries to talk to the children of the house, her boss snaps at her; in the final home where she finds a missing jigsaw piece and says “I found it”, her boss corrects her, claiming “I found it”. Berlin’s stories are full of second chances and moments of redemption. She infuses her characters, often invisible in society, with great dignity and strength. I like the different ways of seeing she presents and the inherent class hierarchies that imbue those ways of seeing and being seen: the poor seeing the poor, in laundromat windows, in television reflections, in the cocaine mirrors of the rich, while the wealthy are as unseeing as “the lazy blind eyes” of the fish head in the carrier bag, waiting to be soup.
In A Manual for Cleaning Women (Picador, 2015)
Berlin is a new favourite of mine. The anthology is chock full of wonders, but when I think of the book and all it contains, my mind’s eye conjures the image of a beautiful woman standing up inside a convertible. Revisiting Tiger Bites, I see it’s a cousin to Welty’s story. The pace is as hectic, the characters as engagingly off the wall. Here, too, a woman without resources is forced to return to her family, child in tow, following the collapse of her marriage. Events go off — wildly so — in unexpected directions. It’s the matter-of-factness of Berlin’s characters, and their ability to accept one another (in circumstances that would drive others into therapy), that catches me every time.
Available in A Manual for Cleaning Women, published by Picador in 2015