Baby­lon Ber­lin

Post­hu­mous col­lec­tion hits the sweet spot be­tween free verse and prose

Simcoe Reformer - Times-Reformer - - BOOKS - ANN LEVIN THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In 2015, the post­hu­mous pub­li­ca­tion of the short story col­lec­tion A Man­ual for Clean­ing Women made its au­thor Lu­cia Ber­lin a house­hold name, at least in lit­er­ary house­holds.

Now her pub­lisher has brought out a new col­lec­tion, Evening in Par­adise, along with an evoca­tive mem­oir, Wel­come Home, that Ber­lin was work­ing on when she died in 2004 at age 68.

The sto­ries, best de­scribed as au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal fic­tion, fea­ture an in­ter­change­able cast of char­ac­ters who are stand-ins for Ber­lin and her en­tourage of friends, fam­ily and lovers.

The daugh­ter of a min­ing en­gi­neer, Ber­lin lived a peri­patetic life, grow­ing up in Western min­ing towns and spend­ing her teenage years in San­ti­ago, Chile. The mem­oir lists al­most three dozen houses she called home, one of which she burned down.

One of the best sto­ries, An­dado, fo­cuses on a 14-year-old girl who is sex­u­ally as­saulted by one of her fa­ther’s busi­ness as­so­ci­ates in Chile.

When the story opens, she and her girl­friends are typ­i­cal teenagers, prac­tic­ing “kiss­ing by kiss­ing the medicine cab­i­net . ... Where did noses go? That’s how much they knew about love.”

In real life Ber­lin was mar­ried three times (twice to jazz mu­si­cians), strug­gled with al­co­holism and worked a va­ri­ety of low-end jobs to raise her four sons, mostly by her­self.

Th­ese cir­cum­stances are re­flected in many of the sto­ries, in which var­i­ously named fe­male pro­tag­o­nists rise above their pre­car­i­ous cir­cum­stances be­cause of their grit, hu­mour, in­tel­li­gence and ten­der feel­ings — not just for their lovers and chil­dren but for the world it­self.

In La Barco de la Ilu­sion, the main char­ac­ter, Maya, lives with her hus­band and three kids in a thatched-roof house on the edge of a Mex­i­can jun­gle.

“Just be­fore dawn the roost­ers crowed and at the first light a thou­sand laugh­ing gulls flew past the house up­river. Flocks of par­rots flashed green daz­zling against the cool grey co­conuts.”

Dozens of pas­sages of­fer up sim­i­larly vivid im­ages of sky, weather, birds and flow­ers. She does hu­mans well, too, with a sharp eye for so­cial, eco­nomic and re­gional dif­fer­ences.

Her reg­u­lars tend to be artsy, well-read types, strug­gling fi­nan­cially while writ­ing po­ems or play­ing jazz — and hit­ting the sauce or pills or heroin pretty hard. “Decca was the only fe­male al­co­holic Laura knew that didn’t hide her liquor,” Ber­lin writes in The Wives.

Some of the 22 sto­ries here are won­der­ful; oth­ers noth­ing more than a col­lage of shim­mer­ing im­ages. All fea­ture her dis­tinc­tive voice, which op­er­ates in the space be­tween free verse and prose.

Lu­cia Ber­lin Far­rar, Straus and Giroux

Evening in Par­adise: More Sto­ries

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