How to account for the posthumous rise to prominence of Lucia Berlin, who died in 2004, aged 68, relatively little read before the publication of these selected stories? Perhaps our sense of their authenticity has something to do with it. Drawn on an itinerant life across North and South America with four sons and three husbands, Berlin’s work – so often about work, from cleaning to translating – sits well amid the reality-hungry vogue for memoir-streaked fiction; her level-headed portrayal of women’s experience can’t hurt either.
And she’s a very sharp writer: witty, straight talking and non-maudlin when dealing with dark material. She published 76 stories in all; about half appear here. Sometimes, the pieces unspool as if in dialogue with an unseen interviewer prodding the narrator’s memory; one story begins: “Wait. Let me explain…” These conversational items tend to catalogue the idiosyncrasies of a particular job, as in the title piece, which advises never to leave your employer’s things where you find them (“Let them know you are thorough”). The nurse who narrates Emergency Notebook, 1977 yearns for “a good cut-and-dried stabbing” when faced with endless malingerers; later, she decides that “fear, poverty, alcoholism and loneliness” are “terminal illnesses. Emergencies, in fact”.
Berlin herself drank and trouble with alcohol fuels several of the stories focused on family life: in Unmanageable, a woman struggles to get through the night when her 13-year-old son hides her keys and wallet. Another narrator has a testy relationship in adulthood with her sister, Sally, damaged by an alcoholic mother whom they suspect was molested by their grandfather, if their own experience is anything to go by.
Such subjects are treated unsensationally but the stories can be heartrending too, usually when they roam wider. In Carmen, a pregnant mother of two goes on a drug run for her heroin-addled partner and gets slapped in the face for mucking it up because she needed to pee; Mijito follows a homeless Latina who can’t understand the advice she’s given when her baby son needs an operation.
Berlin’s storytelling runs on the hard-nosed wisdom of someone who has made their peace with all that life has to offer, for good or ill. If only she’d published more, you think; but then you realise that the work that kept her away from writing probably supported it, too, in more ways than one.
A Manual for Cleaning Women is published by Picador (£8.99). Click here to buy it for £7.37