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book review

Discovering an author who was hidden in plain sight

Jacob Myrick for the boston globe

All of us know good writers can be buried in plain sight. Still, nothing made that clear like the publication of Lucia Berlin’s “A Manual for Cleaning Women” in 2015, a decade after her death.

Here was a hilarious, brilliant, and percussive Chekhov whose work had been blazing before us for decades.

Her short stories sang the anguish and joy of motherhood; they banged out the rhythms of life in hardscrabble mining camps. Love’s implosion; work’s exhausting costs.

They were glittering, sumptuous, alive.

The publication of two new books could feel like trend chasing — Berlin’s stories were an unexpected New York Times bestseller — but don’t let cynicism’s gremlin climb atop your shoulder. This never-before-published memoir and new collection are cause for jubilation.


In part because they make it clear Berlin’s gifts were vast, complex, and full of tonal warmths, which became somewhat occluded by the legend growing around her. Mostly the one that focused on the story of an alcoholic writer who dried out but wrote through terrible jobs in great obscurity.

Welcome Home” should complicate and deepen our sense of who Berlin was and what her life was like. Sketching her days in various places — Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Texas, and Chile — they paint a nomadic childhood and young womanhood in shades and tones unique in American literature.

The daughter of a mining engineer, Berlin recalls the soundscape of her upbringing with a practical heart and a musician’s ear. “Chains clanked. Welding rods sizzled. Scrapings and hisses and thuds . . . Men cursed and hollered day and night too, especially at night when saws would whine and all the screeching sounds turned into monsters.”

In Santiago, Chile, where Berlin moved at a young age, she walked to school on tree-lined streets and studied almost entirely in Spanish and French. She woke to chocolate and toast served by maids, read Don Quixote for two years. Some of her friends from this period killed themselves after the revolution, full of nostalgia for this time.


Berlin would eventually return to the United States for boarding school and then marriages, motherhood, travel, and the writing that occupied her life.

Her three husbands included a sculptor and a saxophonist, and it’s clear her own sensitivities stretched broadly across the arts. No American story writer uses the senses quite like her. The colors of the Southwest wash over her sketches. The sounds of labor, of talk.

Even a glimpse from a moving train of a woman on a Texas prairie town has a Walker Evans quality.

“A woman in a farmyard hanging sheets on the line. She opened a clothespin with her teeth and waved at the train.”

She also uses the most frequently neglected sense in writing: touch. Writing of her first husband, in whose awe she stood at a young age, she says, heartbreakingly: “I held the hot part of the cup and gave him the handle.”

This detail winds up in one of the short stories, as does another choice image — a neighbor who’d fix broken plumbing by flushing them out with Hamm’s beer.

Yet even when there’s an almost one-to-one correspondence between Berlin’s autobiographical sketches and her stories, there’s also a clear and compelling difference.

Berlin’s sketches are suggestive, moving, matter-of-fact in some places, and completely devoid of self-pity. Reading them is like having someone tell you the stories of her life over your shoulder as you look at pictures from that time.


To read “Evening in Paradise,” however, feels like living through the periods yourself. Like Chekhov, Berlin was a beautiful framer of stories. She knows how to draw an incident around a place and period, as in the title story, which unfolds in a small seaside town overrun by Hollywood actors who mingle uncomfortably with the locals.

Beat by beat, these stories etch a circle around a time and then fill up the inside with the sensation of lived experience, of conscious thought — loves and regrets.

“Sometimes in Summer” sketches the overlapping loyalties and disparate families of a girl and her best friend the year they are seven in a Texas town. Like Elena Ferrante, Berlin captures the feral gigantic world of small girls and the way their schemes can feel epic.

Berlin is an astute, plainspoken observer of the bargains a woman makes growing up, how often they’re reinforced by the world around them. In “Lead Street, Albuquerque,” a newly married teenaged woman tries to come to grips with her new life as a stay-at-home mother. “Rex seemed more interested than pleased about the baby,” she writes.

Berlin is a master of shaving a tone this subtly. In that statement lay an observation without a judgment, and so you read onward to find whether the latter will follow, as much as to find out what happens.


One of the collection’s gems, “Andado,” chronicles a teenager’s weekend in the country with an aristocratic family friend. The narrator watches as the man’s family unravels from secrets held in plain sight. And then she becomes part of one of those secrets herself.

The stories in “Evening in Paradise” frequently tilt on this ever-present pivot between what is hidden and obvious, and how in dramatic situations the two things trade places back and forth.

Berlin’s great gift as a writer was her ability to portray these inversions. To occasionally, like Ferrante, whose energy she equals, simply state outright what is there.

“There are things people just don’t talk about,” says the narrator of “Dust to Dust,” who tells of a rakish motorcycle racer’s blazing life and death.

“I don’t mean the hard things, like love, but the awkward ones, like how funerals are fun sometimes or how it’s exciting to watch building’s burning. Michael’s funeral was wonderful.”

Reading Berlin is like watching that building burn and realizing it is our lives.


A Memoir with Selected Photographs and Letters

By Lucia Berlin

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 162 pp., illustrated, $25


More Stories

By Lucia Berlin

244 pages; $26

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 242 pp., $26

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John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, the latest issue of which is themed to power. His latest book is “Maps,’’ a collection of poems.