It is only fairly recently (around November of 2018 – the time when I first stacked her novels on Goodreads) that I knew of Lucia Berlin. She is described to have lived an “itinerant life” having lived in Mexico, Chile, and the American Southwest. Some of her book covers also feature her gloriously attractive face that reminds me somewhat of Elizabeth Taylor with the impenetrable, piercing eyes that scream old soul. While I have already featured quite a number of American female authors for our reading theme, I feel that Berlin needs to be read more widely. She embodies women’s brave attempts at reinvention while stretching the boundaries of what storytelling signifies.
Written by Lucia Berlin
Published by Picador (2016, first published in 2015)
ISBN:1447294890 (ISBN13: 9781447294894). Literary Awards: California Book Award for Fiction (Gold) (2015), Kirkus Prize Nominee for Fiction (Finalist) (2015), Premi Llibreter de narrativa for Altres literatures (2016). Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book quotes layout via iPhone apps.
I do not really consider myself a fan of short story collections. Often, I find them too fragmented. Other times, I find it difficult to muster up the enthusiasm to read the next story, as it ruins my reading momentum and my need for some measure of continuity to the narrative. Yet Lucia Berlin is different. Other Goodreads reviews complain that the stories tend to be repetitive. While there is truth to this, I find the repetition purposeful. There is a rhythm to her storytelling that echoes across all separate individual stories that are pitch perfect as a stand-alone, but even more complex when assembled together in just this manner.
If I were to use one word to describe her stories, it would be: unforgettable. Each of her tales has left an imprint in my consciousness – from her very young love who showed her the sweetness of intimacy (see quote below):
… to stories of her being an alcoholic in love with her son’s friend; or that tale with the well-meaning-but-horribly-misguided teacher in Chile who wanted Lucia to have an immersive weekend experience of what it is like to be destitute in a foreign country; or that tale of her helping her grandfather rip out all his teeth; or the year she spent taking care of her sister dying of cancer; or those laundromat stories reminding me of our time in Europe and my husband’s many tales about his observations of people while doing our laundry; or the big reveal in one of the stories in the end about self-loathing, abuse, violence.
Each story blindsides the reader, the tempo lulling the reader into complacency then staccato bursts of tension and humour and those ephemeral flashes of beauty. Each story of course is Lucia, although different names were used, altered points of view cleverly played around with. She makes me want to learn how to write. I didn’t realize it could be done in this fashion, until she did it.
There is pain, a decidedly turbulent life that is both affluent but dirt-poor too, each one sucks the juice out of life, as she smiles open-mouthed brimming with fruit. She has transformed each of her highly individual and mundane experiences into tiny fables, distilled sketches of people whom the reader would love to meet. They are portraits of vulnerability but always with admirable dignity even with the phantom pains and the degradation of addiction. Lucia tells us she has birthed her tragedy in the mud, and she lies in it, covered in muck, but still with glowing eyes, iridescent, beautiful. Read Lucia Berlin.
#WomenReadWomen2019: Lucia Berlin is from the United States of America.