A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin (Edited by Stephen Emerson) - review by Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna

Life Studies

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories


Picador 403pp £16.99

The debate continues to rage (if that is the right verb) about autobiographical fiction. It began, apparently, with the publication of My Struggle by the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, in which a first-person narrator describes the life and times of a man called Karl Ove Knausgaard. The enterprise was hailed as revolutionary; ‘fiction’ was even at times pronounced quite dead, unless it was redeemed by autobiographical ‘fact’. Yet, as Knausgaard no doubt acknowledges, scores of literary predecessors – from Apuleius to Proust to Céline and beyond – have bestowed their own names upon the narrators of their novels, and the boundaries between autobiography and fiction have been freely elided by writers as canonical as Laurence Sterne, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Thomas De Quincey, Knut Hamsun, Roberto Bolaño, Virginia Woolf, W G Sebald and so on. Besides, who knows precisely when we are ‘autobiographical’ or ‘fictional’ anyway? Wouldn’t you actually need to be some kind of omniscient deity to forge adamantine boundaries between these two states? 

Such questions are central to the work of Lucia Berlin, a previously neglected American writer of short stories. The current interest in ‘autobiographical fiction’ may even have helped to bring her work back into favour, though we cannot be certain. Born in Juneau, Alaska, in 1936, Berlin lived in many

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