‘Let me See you Smile’ by Lucia Berlin

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 Manual for Cleaning Women’ by Lucia Berlin

‘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)

‘Tiger Bites’ by Lucia Berlin

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