Evening in Paradise

Lucia Berlin

More Stories

Published by Picador 1 November 2018

256pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Alison Burns

Click here to buy this book

 

Here is another collection of leap-off-the-page, life-enhancing stories by the wonderful American writer Lucia Berlin, who died in 2015.  How she can have been neglected for so long is a complete mystery, not explained by her famous alcoholism.  She is up there with Hemingway, Miles Davis and O’Keeffe.

Berlin’s frankness and humour apart, it is the power of observation that blows one’s mind.  Walking in the rain, in deserted downtown Manhattan, one of her narrators, Lisa, wants her companion to ‘see it as beautiful, the city, her city’:

She knew he didn’t.  He was looking at the men eating raw yams and stolen grapefruit, or burning orange crates in rusty incinerators.  Bronze K Ration 6 FOR A DOLLAR cans, green Gallo Port bottles glistening in the light of the fires, shimmering in the rain.  An old man vomited into the gutter where purple fruit wrappers blurred indigo at the grate liked crushed anemones.’

Finding beauty was Berlin’s gift.  She captured it in words on the page as some of her contemporaries did in paint or music or photography, and seems to have been impelled to record it despite the struggles – against addictions of one sort or another  –  with which she and her characters wrestled.

Many of these stories are set in places far from Manhattan: Chile, New Mexico, Mexico City, or the Western mining towns of Berlin’s childhood.  They chart the growth of Berlin’s sensibility.  From the action-packed account of two seven-year-olds selling ‘chances’ in their neighbourhood (El Paso, 1943) to a Gothic tale of sexual assault in Chile, to story after story of husbands and wives and lovers, such is the immediacy that we are with Berlin every step of the way as she shows without blinking the path from innocence to experience.

One of the things she does is say the unsayable (such as that funerals can be funny, or marriage drive you crazy).  She is also brilliant on the underside of glamour.  And always there’s the feeling that the show goes on, if at all humanly possible: children are looked after, families are fed, doctorates are written, artist husbands and lovelorn women-friends are supported, jazz and sex are relished.

In the very first story, seven-year-old Lucia is put to bed by Mamie, her grandmother –  not exactly in disgrace, more because she has been snatched from the jaws of disaster –   and given ‘custard and cocoa, the food she served to the sick or the damned’.  It is this combination of warmth and extremity that shines out in every word Lucia Berlin writes.

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