‘Evening in Paradise’: more stories by Lucia Berlin
“Evening in Paradise: More Stories” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Lucia Berlin:
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, humor, 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 gray 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.