I feel awful. I’m 14 books into #20booksofsummer and I’ve reviewed LESS THAN HALF of them. Fortunately, I now have some time on my hands: I’ve just left my job (more on that later, if I feel like it), and due to family circumstances, I’ll be popping down to West Sussex over the weekend to hold down the fort at my grandparents’ house. Both things should afford me some time to catch up. Meanwhile, I’ve just finished series 4 of Orange Is the New Black and can’t sleep—images from the past few episodes keep flashing through my head; is it normal to be this haunted by a television show? It’s because it’s so brilliant—so here are two very quick, embarrassingly quick, catch-up reviews of books I loved.
07. A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin
Where I read it: On the way back from a singing lesson in Highbury, amongst other places.
I missed out on Lucia Berlin last year. Last year was her moment in the spotlight, really, her rediscovery after decades of brilliant and productive obscurity. Fortunately the paperback of this collection is coming out soon, so perhaps I can pass this off as a timely appreciation. Anyway, the thing is, I’m not really a short story kind of person. I find them contrived most of the time, and they make demands of you: emotional engagement, intellectual flexibility (so many of them open in medias res and expect us to be able to follow the situation at once). It’s not that I mind stories making demands of me; it just pisses me off to make the investment when the product is so…brief. (I know this is a tormented metaphor, I’m giving it up now.)
The nice thing about Berlin is that she beckons you in. She doesn’t ask you to do anything but listen. She’s not going to get smart or existential or pretentious with you. She’s just going to tell you about this thing that happened and was interesting, or sad. Her narrating persona could be the same woman all the way through, which lends the collection a more novelistic feeling; you get the impression you’re seeing someone in a fragmented way at different stages in her life, but her character is consistent enough for this not to be disorienting. Most of her stories are set in Mexico, the American Southwest, or California. It’s Cormac McCarthy country—dry wind and desert grass—but there’s more kindness and grace than McCarthy is ever willing to squeeze out. She writes about abortions, and alcoholics helping each other out in laundromats. She writes about prison and hospitals. She writes about being a writer and being poor and having two small boys. Most of her work is autobiographical (the foreword by Lydia Davis is especially illuminating about this); none is self-pitying. She mastered the art of conversational prose. You feel as though she’s standing right there next to you, smoking and looking at you with those huge heavy-lidded eyes, cracking a smile. These are 100% worth seeking out.
08. The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee
Where I read it: Probably everywhere, I don’t remember actually putting it down at all.
When I finished The Queen of the Night, I went back to the manuscript of my own novel and wrote a scene that allowed me to describe music (Ombra mai fu from Handel’s Serse, if you’re keen); this book is that evocative and inspirational. Liliet Berne is the toast of Paris in the 1860s, an opera singer whose Fach, or voice type, is that of a Falcon soprano—a tragic voice, powerful as steel and utterly unpredictable in its delicacy. But Liliet has a secret; in fact she has many, and most of the book consists of her re-telling her own life in an attempt to find out who might be blackmailing her now.
Chee gets so many things right: the lushness and corruption of Napoléon III’s France, the helplessness of a woman without money or connections, the things that such women do to get ahead. He’s also bang on with his opera descriptions. I’m demanding about classical music in fiction because I know about it; plenty of writers get the atmosphere of performance and professionalism all wrong. He gets it just right, with enough of the basics to interest you if you don’t know much about opera while placating you with high-level detail if you’re more knowledgeable. Several times during the book I wanted to put it down and sing—but we have neighbours, and I couldn’t put it down anyway because the plot was roaring ahead at full speed.
There are places where it slows down, and I was never entirely sure of the precise mechanics behind all of the plotting and conspiring. Liliet’s life is clearly in danger throughout much of the book, but I often had to stop and reassemble the reasons for her jeopardy in my head. It’s a long novel, and confusion would be easy. And is there a faint element of the soapy to the many twists and turns of Liliet’s identities? Perhaps—though I could also easily argue that the right word is”picaresque”. But give yourself a clear run at it, and you’ll be richly rewarded: this is definitely one for the holiday (even for a long-haul flight, if you’ve got strong wrists).
A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin. (London: Picador, 2016 )
The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee (London: Michael Joseph, 2016)