Festive Reads: Honnish Holidays

33848298These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

Set to the backdrop of a Parisian summer, this contemporary novel tells the story of the tenants of an apartment block. The fast-paced narrative, intertwined with the characters’ personal histories, their failed lives, love affairs, and secrets hold the readers attention. A landlady searches for her lost youth; another lives in her childhood apartment, remembering her privileged past; a young mother is frustrated with her life and is losing her mind; a young man wrestles with his faith; and another campaigns against a Muslim couple moving in. Meanwhile the divided politics and anti-Islamic threats rage through the city, risking livelihoods and lives. A timely issue, the book does not shirk from examining the varying ideologies at play. This is best displayed when a mild-mannered tenant deceives his wife and negotiates his place within the Far Right, a step that goes too far. A realistic character study of many humans existing together with their private lives worlds apart, Fran Cooper has written a Ship of Fools for the modern reader. Sharp and engaging, she brings forth the poetry and pathos of everyday lives and scenarios. A strong debut that is certain to appeal to, and strike a chord within, all readers.

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The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

In this sparkling prequel to Practical Magic Alice Hoffman brings the Owens family back to life, this time focusing on the upbringing of three siblings, Franny, Bridget ‘Jet’ and Vincent. The setting is New York City in the 1960s, and the children are raised in a conventional household by a child psychologist father and a mother whose background is quite mysterious. Through their mother they are blood witches and related to Maria Owens, a scarlet woman whose heartbreak turned into a curse, so whomever they fall in love with is destined to die. However when they spend the summer in Massachusetts with an aunt, they soon learn the rules of magic. Its charming imagery of eccentric aunts, black cats and spell books are balanced with the social issues such as the Vietnam war, Civil Rights, and the rise of hippy culture. And the narrative incorporates the subject of seventeenth-century witchcraft with discreet nods to authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne. The combination of magic and the universal themes of love – romantic love and sibling love – allows the reader to have one foot in a magical world and another in real life. Much like the bewitching heroines of this book.

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A Letter From Italy by Pamela Hart

It is 1917 and Rebecca Quinn, an Australian journalist, has come to Italy with her husband to report on the Italian war campaign. Given her profession and determination to make her own way in the world, she is an anomaly amongst her gender and colleagues. She is also confused by the language barrier, and the welcomed advances from an American-born Italian photographer, Alessandro. Recalling a time in both Italian and Australian history, Hart conveys the inner conflict of not only her protagonist, but of women from that era and the challenges they faced both politically and morally. Based on the real life war correspondent, Louise Mack, it brings to life WWI and journalism from a woman’s point of view. An inspiring read.

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The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

An evocative and atmospheric novel set in the 2000s, even though it feels like a 1950s mystery: with the dramatic backdrop of the barren landscape of Kansas, much of the action occurs in a mansion whose walls contain too many secrets. Lane, a girl from New York, harbours a romantic vision of her family’s estate, Roanoke – despite her unstable mother’s warnings that it was hell. After her mother’s suicide, 15-year-old Lane goes to live there with her maternal grandparents, whom she does not know. At first, she senses a strange atmosphere, which she blames on her aloof grandmother and rebellious cousin Allegra. Both girls have come to Roanoke to be raised by their ageing grandparents, and they are bonded by decades of secrets trickling down the generations. From the opening page until the last sentence, the plot is packed with suspense and danger, and an unsettling feeling radiates off the characters. With its vivid visual imagery, this is a book that stays with you.

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Histories by Sam Guglani

In this striking collection of short stories Sam Guglani reveals the inner-workings of a hospital along with the private observations of those who work in it. From a consultant, a junior doctor, a porter and a domestic, each individual seems to exist only in a medical environment and the stretch of corridors, wards, medical apparatus and patients make up the fabric of their lives in that moment. A doctor is struck by the beauty of a woman, even though her body is dying; a janitor fades into the background; a domestic is harassed by youths; a chaplain comforts the dying; an oncologist sees what the body hides. Throughout the interconnected stories morals are questioned, common sense is often overruled by literature, the hierarchy of roles within the hospital are taken for granted, and a patient fights for their life. With his vivid prose Giglani examines the fine line of mortality, and the role that each human plays throughout the discourse of the narrative. His background as a doctor at an NHS hospital and talent as a writer merges the two worlds to offer a unique look at a system under stress but one where humanity prevails. For fans of Lucia Berlin.

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Manderley Forever by Tatiana de Rosnay

Although there has been various books published about Daphne du Maurier this is the first biography to be written as fiction. Originally translated from French and written in the present tense, the author’s handling of her protagonist is aloof; she relays facts without adding context, and the setting jumps around. It feels cinematic, as it slowly offers snippets of information to relay the fundamental qualities of what made Daphne tick. In that sense the biography is a clever one, and entirely original. Rosnay also draws on Daphne’s French heritage, and explores how this shaped her as a writer. The author manages to capture the balance between a courageous young woman, in both her private and public life, and the barrier she put up when around others who were not part of her world. An insightful and endearing book, it’s a must read for admirers of Daphne and her work.

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Ava: A Life in Movies by Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski

In this illustrated book on Ava Gardner, film historians and authors, Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski reveal the layers of Gardner’s life, amidst her Hollywood fame and tumultuous romances. From her impoverished upbringing, to the highs and lows of a career spanning several decades, to her fabled marriage to Frank Sinatra, the authors, although respectful to Gardner herself, leave no stone unturned. Through their meticulous research and rare photographs we meet the woman behind the smokescreen, whose talent has become overshadowed by scandal and second-hand tales. What the reader will come away with, is a sympathetic portrait of a woman who was, perhaps, too human for Hollywood. A biography Gardner herself would be proud of.

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Ghosts of Christmas Past edited by Tim Martin

Ideal for those (such as myself) who dislike the hype surrounding Christmas but still enjoy a little festive cheer. A collection of brilliant short stories written by past and contemporary authors. Drawing on big houses, mystery and scandal it is the ideal stocking-filler for those who the macabre. The perfect companion for the dark winter nights.

The Mitford Society: Vol IV

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Hello Mitties! It’s that time of year again, the launch of a new Mitford annual. As always, it features the infamous Mitford Tease (Friends and Frenemies) as well as a host of features on the Mitfords and their set. I have included the table of contents below. Next year I will be making a start on Vol. V a lot sooner as it will be a celebration to mark Decca’s 100th birthday! So, there is no time like the present. If you would like to be included in Vol. 5, or have an idea, please don’t hesitate to get in touch! You can purchase the annual on both Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Table of Contents

 Friends and Frenemies: A Mitford Tease

The Muse: Diana Mitford and Helleu

A Very Mitford Reading

Lucia Joyce: The Pioneering Modern Dancer That Almost Was

Pam and Betje: An Enduring Friendship

Beaten by Beaton: Doris Delevingne and her Love Affair with Cecil Beaton

The Company She Kept: Unity Mitford and her Friends

Too Naked for the Nazis: How Betty Knox Went From Chorus Line to Front Line

Lady Bridget Parsons: The Pursuit of Love by

Literary Ladies: The Fictional Worlds of Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Lucia Berlin

The Big Tease: How Olivia de Havilland Fell for Nancy Mitford

In The Footsteps of the Mitfords

Debo and Cake:  A Royal Friendship

Lady Irene Curzon: A Dim View of Diana

Private Enemy Number One

Camelot in the Derbyshire Dales

The President and The Duchess

Only the Sister: Angela du Maurier

Nancy Mitford and Harold Acton: A Life-long Friendship

Literary Ladies: Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Jane Howard, and Lucia Berlin

Extracted from this year’s Mitford Society: Vol IV

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(Images were taken from Google, no copyright infringement intended)

Although from different backgrounds, both socially and professionally, the stylistic approach of Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Jane Howard (known as Jane), and Lucia Berlin were markedly similar. Everything they had gone through in their lives – their difficult upbringings, relationships with their family and friends, and love affairs – were woven into the text of their stories. As an admirer of all three women, I find the clues within their literary canon an intriguing puzzle. Interestingly, only Jane wrote an autobiography (titled Slipstream), whereas Nancy threatened to write her memoirs but never did, and Lucia’s remained uncompleted.*

In The Pursuit of Love, Nancy’s fifth non-fiction novel which was published in 1945, the characters were a complete portrait of her parents and sisters. Each character is a combination of the Mitfords’ collective lives: their childhood secret societies (the Hons’ Cupboard), love affairs, and the dialogue they spoke. Her earlier work – written in haste to supplement a meagre allowance borrowed fragments from her misadventures with the Bright Young Things – lacks a venomous bite. However, in TPOL the pathos of a young woman of eighteen coming out as a debutante, hoping to find a husband to not only elevate her rank in society but unburden her parents, is heartbreaking when dissected. Love did not come into the equation, and Nancy often chased the four-lettered word.

Love in a Cold Climate, the sequel to The Pursuit of Love, had darker undertones and seemed to express more of Nancy’s own personal woes than those of her sisters, but in essence they are present in the text. Her wartime affair with a Free French Officer, riddled with tuberculous, saw Nancy become pregnant while her husband was fighting overseas. The child, who was very much wanted by Nancy – she had had several miscarriages throughout her unsuccessful marriage – resulted in an ectopic pregnancy, the consequence of which meant a hysterectomy. This, she never really got over and when Debo, the youngest and sweetest sister, gave birth to a baby which died shortly after, Nancy compared the death of a child to the loss of a manuscript. The remark, though callous, foregrounds the importance of her work. In the end, when lovers had strung her along and then left her, and her husband squandered her earnings and then divorced her, her writing was all she had to give her a sense of purpose. Concluding Love in a Cold Climate Nancy has Linda die in childbirth, having conceived a child with her French lover. As we know from reading both books, Linda had married a rich descendant of a German family, bore a daughter whom she disliked, and left him for a Communist sympathiser. Shades of Diana, though it was a fascist for whom she left her husband Bryan Guinness. Communism was perhaps a nod to sister Decca. But the tragic ending, a combination of both reality and fiction, could explain how Nancy felt after losing her chance to have children, and the fate which she felt Diana deserved. ‘Nancy is a very curious character,’ her mother, Lady Redesdale, had once said. As a compulsive Mitford reader, I am grateful for her idiosyncrasies.

However during the pursuit of their writing careers all three women had, at one point in their lives, worked in the literary field. During the war, Nancy worked at Heywood Hill, a smart bookshop on Curzon Street in Mayfair; Jane reviewed books for Queen magazine; and Lucia accepted the post of visiting teacher and then associate professor at the University of Colorado – her creative writing workshops were especially popular with students. Any serious writer who is good at what they do will lament the reading of books as the secret to their success, and their bookish professions must have enriched their work. Their work appeared in periodicals before it made it to book form, with Nancy writing for The Lady and Vogue, Jane working for the Daily Express, and Lucia’s early short stories appearing in The Atlantic and The Noble Savage.

In comparison to the American-born Lucia, Nancy and Jane were the products of their social classes. Nancy was born into an aristocratic family who suffered financial difficulties, and Jane was born into an upper-middle-class family whose fortune was derived from a successful timber business. Both used the backgrounds of their parents and forebears in their books. Nancy drew on her parents ‘Muv and Farve’ for her portrayal of Aunt Sadie and Uncle Matthew in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate – the mother vague and disinterested in her children but enthralled with domesticity, and the father a philistine character with narrow interests and an equally small mind. Jane, too, crafted an exact portrait of her parents in the form of Villy and Edward, in her hugely successful Cazalet series – her own mother, as in the series of books, was a former ballerina who struggled with ‘the horrid side to married life’ and showed little interest in Jane but adored her sons; and her father, as in the character of Edward, lavished praise onto his daughter and, in her mid teens, began to abuse her. Although detailed in Slipstream, Jane had already exorcised those childhood demons in the Cazalets, and she cast herself as Louise, the daughter of Edward and Villy. Both Nancy and Jane’s settings were large country houses in the English countryside, surrounded by various cousins, aunts and uncles, and siblings where a healthy dose of rivalry existed. Nannies and governesses make an appearance, as do maids, cooks, and chauffeurs. And although competent and successful writers, Nancy and Jane were acutely aware of their lack of education and all their lives they endeavoured to make up for this.

Lucia, however, was perhaps the most complex of the women and her writing reflects this. Hers was a myriad of themes and settings, with down and out addicts roaming the streets, to debutantes waltzing in the sultry heat of Chile. Perhaps it was her American birth, or perhaps it was unique to her family life, that allowed her to move through several rungs of the social ladder with ease and, despite being well educated and working in ordinary professions during her literary career, it is difficult to categorise her. Whereas Nancy and Jane’s complexities lay within their emotional range, Lucia’s were physical and they were displayed with startling honestly. Born in Alaska in 1936, her father worked as a mining engineer and her mother began to drink heavily shortly after her birth. Alcoholism haunted the maternal side of Lucia’s family, and she, too, would suffer because of it and then overcome her addiction. The Second World War saw the family move to Texas and her father went overseas with the army. Here, in her grandparents home, she was subjected to a sinister environment provoked by her grandfather’s, uncle’s, and mother’s drinking, her grandmother’s religious fanaticism, and then her grandfather’s sexual abuse. This she mentions in several of her short stories, predominantly Dr. H.A. Moynihan, which centres on her dentist grandfather. Unlike Nancy and Jane, she never wrote a full length novel, the closest was Andado which offers a snippet (though told as fiction) of her teenage self leaving her family home to receive the hospitality of an upper-class gentleman in the Chilean countryside only to be raped during her stay. I should also note that, in Love in a Cold Climate, Polly marries her childhood abuser. And in the Cazalet series, beginning with the first book The Light Years, Louise is ashamed when her father makes several passes at her but she does not begrudge him or think him wicked. Jane shared this view of her own father. There are too many of Lucia’s short stories to list and the dissection of each one deserves its own retrospective, but as with Nancy and Jane, the darker elements of her upbringing and adulthood are on display: her failed marriages (she was married three times), the birth of her four sons, abandonment, addiction, poverty, and her various careers. While Nancy’s and Jane’s novels have a limited setting – the English countryside, London, Paris, New York, and the respectable resorts of the Riviera – Lucia takes her reader on a visual journey across America, to the deserts of Texas and the Mexican border (in one story it is for a family reunion, another for an abortion), to Puerto Vallarta where she had eloped; to downtown New York, the urban sprawl of the West Coast, and the grandeur and upheaval of pre-revolution Chile.

The common thread, at least in terms of romance, was the (acknowledged) feeling that Nancy, Jane, and Lucia had made a mess of their lives. With the exception of Nancy, Jane and Lucia married in their teens and had children young. Nancy married at the age of 29 on the rebound from a failed love affair. Both Jane and Lucia would remarry several times, choosing unsuitable men and sacrificing their own happiness and career development in doing so. Nancy seemed to use this as an incentive to make her professional life a success. Each poured this into their characterisations: Nancy’s regret at being childless, and at being at the disposal of her lover; Jane’s in having abandoned her child to pursue her own interests; and Lucia’s at feeling guilty for drinking during her sons’ childhood. This tinged their novels with a sense of pathos, and also evoked sympathy. Somewhere, in the depths of their prose and plots, their female readers could relate.

During their lifetime, Nancy and Jane would reap the merits of their literary careers and enjoy fame and fortune. It offered them a comfortable and secure lifestyle, something that was lacking in other areas of their lives. Lucia’s literary fame, however, is far more extraordinary. Published by independent presses she had a small but devoted readership, although she remained somewhat undiscovered. In 2015 a posthumous collection of her short stories were compiled in A Manual for Cleaning Women and it was published to international acclaim. Now a recognisable name in the publishing industry, Lucia Berlin has risen to the ranks of Nancy Mitford and Elizabeth Jane Howard. All three, I believe, deserve their place as great female writers not only for their unique stylistic approach, but for their contribution to the world of literature.

*The Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin and Pan Macmillan published her unfinished memoir, Welcome Home.

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The Mitford Society Vol. IV is available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

 

The Mitford Society’s Festive Reads, Part One

A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

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Lucia Berlin’s posthumous collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, edited by Stephen Emerson with a foreword by Lydia Davis, compromises over forty of her best stories. Berlin’s writing was autobiographical, ranging from a childhood in Alaska and El Paso, Texas, to her teenage years in Chile, and her adult life in Mexico, New Mexico, New York City, California and Colorado. Her writing is set in those sprawling landscapes: darkened alleyways strewn with drunks and druggies; a debutante amongst the communists in Chile; backstreet clinics; downtrodden apartments; the drudgery of commuting to work and the weekly visits to mundane laundromats. She writes about her abusive childhood at the hands of her alcoholic mother and grandfather, addiction, relationships, poverty, unemployment, cultural and class differences – Berlin herself could walk through those walls, like a phantom in a way, and the tapestry of her own life was made up of many backgrounds, many subplots. Her work is not a misery memoir, but an insight into human nature.

 

First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill by Sonia Purnell

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Sonia Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill brings to life the complex women whose identity has been overshadowed by her husband, Winston Churchill. Commenting that she would have pursued a career in politics had she been ‘born with trousers and not a petticoat’, it was her calming influence, ability to read people and determination that influenced Winston and encouraged him during the murkier times of his political career. Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill is a complex character study about a fascinating woman as equally interesting as her famous husband. Through her meticulous research and sympathetic prose, she brings the allusive woman to life as a dynamic figure at the forefront of twentieth-century politics.

 

On The Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life edited by Georgia de Chamberet

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Lesley Blanch died aged 103 having gone from being a household name to a mysterious and neglected living legend. She was writing her memoirs before her death, beginning with her unconventional Edwardian childhood. Her goddaughter, Georgia de Chamberet, has now compiled that piece and many others – including pieces that were never published, some published only in French, various letters and Vogue articles to create On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life which captures the essence of a rich and rewarding life which spanned the 20th century.

 

Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester

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Alison Jean Lester has created a character who is not only sure of herself; she is sophisticated, clever, and has no qualms about her position in life. Lillian is a mistress. What I loved about this book is that Lillian never plays the victim or bemoans her fate – unlike so many books where the aging mistress is on the brink of suicide and is filled with regret that she has been passed over for the wife. The narrative tells us everything we need to know about Lillian’s view of life, and, working backwards, we are informed of how she deals with the subject in question. This is a lovely tome to dip in and out of, and you don’t have to retrace your steps even if you finish mid-chapter. Imagine!

 

Before Marilyn: The Blue Book Modelling Years by Astrid Franse and Michelle Morgan

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This beautiful coffee table book tells the story of Marilyn Monroe’s modelling career at Hollywood’s famous Blue Book agency. Featuring unpublished photographs and drawing on newly discovered letters and documents it explores the rise of an ambitious young woman under the guidance of Emmeline Snively, head of the agency, who kept a record of her client during their professional relationship and beyond. This archive was purchased by Astrid Franse and along with Michelle Morgan’s narrative they have produced a unique book that is a tribute not only to Monroe, but to Miss Snively too. Lovingly executed with stunning photographs it is a must-have for fans!

 

Margot at War: Love and Betrayal in Downing Street by Anne de Courcy

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Anne de Courcy’s latest study is a shrewd biography about Margot Asquith, the wife of Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith. A member of the dazzling Tennant family, Margot was a society star who had the world at her feet. With her dark looks and acid tongue, she might have been the predecessor to Nancy Mitford – she famously told Jean Harlow, the scatterbrain movie star, that the ‘t’ in Margot was silent, as was the ‘t’ in Harlow. Clementine Churchill, as a young woman, was often on the receiving end of Margot’s insults, and she once (in)famously referred to Clemmie as ‘having the soul of a servant’. Filled with famous characters and witty prose, this biography moves at a cracking pace.

 

A Curious Friendship: The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing by Anna Thomasson

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The unlikely friendship between Edith Olivier and Rex Whistler is the subject of Anna Thomasson’s hefty but engaging biography. Alone for the first time at the age of 51, Edith, a spinster whose life was dominated by her late clergyman father, seemed to have come to a dead-end. However, for Rex, then a 19-year-old art student, his life was just beginning. In the early 1920s they embarked on an alliance that would transform their lives. Edith was a bluestocking, revered for her intellect long before it was en vogue for women to be celebrated for their brains. Surrounded by clever people all her life, she discovered a new lease of life with Whistler, and her world opened up. She became a writer, and her home, Daye House, was a creative hub for the Bright Young Things. She counted Cecil Beaton, John Betjeman, Siegfried Sassoon and the Sitwells among her admirers. Thoroughly researched, with elegant prose and a glittering cast of characters, Thomasson’s account merges Edith Olivier’s Victorian sensibilities with the raucous Jazz Age, giving the reader the best of both worlds.

 

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

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From the author of the bestselling The Paris Wife, Paul McLain’s latest novel is written as historical fiction and set in colonial Kenya. Circling the Sun is a thrilling account of the life of the British-born aviator Beryl Markham, who was abandoned by her mother and raised by her father on a farm. An unconventional woman, she lived by her own rules and mingled with the Happy Valley set. With the notorious Idina Sackville making a cameo appearance – in a marble bathtub, no less – this will appeal to admirers of naughty aristos.

 

The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait

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Written to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, this book, told as historical fiction, chronicles the girlhood of Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired the much-loved children’s classic. It centres around the family’s governess, Mary Prickett, who dislikes her charges, especially the precocious Alice. Mary’s world is turned upside down when she meets mathematician Charles Dodgson, and although she falls in love with him, his interest lies in the three Liddell girls. Obsessed with his ‘child friends’, and with Alice in particular, Dodgson’s favourite hobby is to photograph the children, often against the wishes of their mother. A rivalry develops between Alice and Mary for his affection. On an outing, he tells the children a tale, which Alice asks him to write down. The rest, as they say, is (literary) history. But the friendship ends abruptly when Dodgson’s letters to Alice are discovered, exposing his romantic love for the child, whom he hopes to marry one day. As Alice Liddell’s great-granddaughter, Vanessa Tait’s insider information and access to letters and diaries give the familiar back-story a new slant. Her captivating book conjures up the topsy-turvy world of Alice – the factual and the fictional girl. It is a story that is both enchanting and disturbing.

 

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

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Set in 1950s England, a chance meeting between Penelope and Charlotte, two rock ’n’ roll-loving teenagers, rakes up the past and brings the present-day struggles of the grown-ups into focus. Penelope and her widowed mother, Talitha, live at Milton Magna, a crumbling mansion, which they neither like nor can afford. And Charlotte’s aunt, Clare, is writing her memoirs and reveals a secret link to Penelope’s family and the influence she had on Talitha. With a foreword by comedienne Miranda Hart, this 10th anniversary edition of Rice’s modern classic is a treat for fans of Nancy Mitford and Elizabeth Jane Howard. Stylishly written with a touch of whimsical charm.

 

The Mitford Society: Vol. III

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The Mitford Society is pleased to present its third annual with contributions from Meems Ellenberg; Lyndsy Spence; Kathy Hillwig; Jeffrey Manley; Tessa Arlen; Kerin Freeman; Louisa Treger; Kim Place-Gateau; Virginie Pronovost; Leia Clancy; Robert Wainwright; Terence Towles Canote; Anna Thomasson; Sonia Purnell; Barbara Leaming. A must-have for any Mitford fan!

Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women

Lucia Berlin, 1963. © 2015, Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin LP (no copyright infringement intended)

Lucia Berlin, 1963. © 2015, Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin LP (no copyright infringement intended)

Lucia Berlin was a fan of Jessica ‘Decca’ Mitford, she made her high school students read An American Way of Death. She named an upper-class Bostonian character ‘Decca’ in her short story The Wives, published in her book, Where I Live Now. I hope that has caught your attention…

During her lifetime Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) collected a modest but dedicated following, predominantly on the west coast of America. Her bibliography includes: A Manual for Cleaning Ladies; Angels Laundromat: Short Stories; Phantom Pain: Sixteen Stories; Safe & Sound; Homesick: New & Selected Stories; So Long: Stories; Where I Live Now: Stories, 1993-1998.

Her writing was autobiographical, ranging from a childhood in Alaska and El Paso, Texas, to her teenage years in Chile, and her adult life in Mexico, New Mexico, New York City, California and Colorado. Her writing is set in those sprawling landscapes: darkened alleyways strewn with drunks and druggies; a debutante amongst the communists in Chile; backstreet clinics; downtrodden apartments; the drudgery of commuting to work and the weekly visits to mundane laundromats. She writes about her abusive childhood at the hands of her alcoholic mother and grandfather, addiction, relationships, poverty, unemployment, cultural and class differences – Lucia herself could walk through those walls, like a phantom in a way, and the tapestry of her own life was made up of many backgrounds, many subplots. Her work is not a misery memoir, but an insight into human nature. Sometimes she is the victim without a victim’s mentality. Other times she is the onlooker, helpless and doing her best to help.

Lucia Berin’s posthumous collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, edited by Stephen Emerson with a foreword by Lydia Davis, compromises over forty of her best stories. Sometimes I read them in chronicle order, or I revisit my favourites (Stars and Saints, Good and Bad, La Vie en Rose, So Long, A Love Affair, Mama). There is a link between many of the stories and the same character will appear throughout the book which makes the prose, more than ever, appear as an autobiography, or a memoir at the very least. They are a window to her life, and what a fascinating world she lived in.

The stories veer away from what I am used to but there is something about them that is hard to fathom. Lucia kept her finger on the pulse of life, and that is conveyed with startling realism in her prose. It is a pleasing conundrum. To look at, she was a magnificent beauty – a cross between Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor, with a soft, sing-song voice. (Listen to her readings here) And yet, through the written word, she could portray such ugliness. My feelings are exactly that of the captain in Mama: ‘You’re breaking my heart, you dusky beauty!’

This is just the tip of he iceberg for Lucia Berlin. I hope publishers scramble to publish her additional work. I dream of a biography, Mitford-esque letters, a documentary…all good things!

Further reading:

A short biography of Lucia Berlin

Listen to Lucia Berlin’s creative writing workshop

Lucia Berlin on Vimeo