Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) lived a life of wealth and also poverty. Her first posthumous collection, the widely praised “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” contained 43 short stories that centered on female characters whose lives resembled Berlin’s.
“Evening in Paradise” is the second posthumous gathering, with 22 more of the 76 stories she published during her lifetime. Evocative and alive with detail, they reveal keenly observed life. They also hum with undercurrents of the glimpsed, the unknown and the unnoticed. Because Berlin herself saw it all.
The stories are arranged chronologically, with main characters who seem like stand-ins for the author.
Two of the early stories are set in El Paso, Texas, in 1943 and feature 7-year-old girls: Lucha and her Syrian friend, Hope. Full of childhood wonder, the girls notice the beauty in everyday things, whether a night sky of shooting stars, or the way the setting sun illuminates the broken glass littering the vacant lot next door to the Haddad house.
“For only a few days, from our position low on the ground, we could see beneath the weeds on the lot at the very moment when the sun lit the mosaic carpet of glass,” Berlin writes. “At an angle, shining through the glass like a cathedral window.”
In “Andado: A Gothic Romance,” 14-year-old Laura has been thrust into the role of her father’s social companion because of a depressed mother confined to her bedroom with drink or pills. Sent for a few days to the estate of one of the richest men in Chile, Laura loses her virginity in a story of excess privilege, wasted power, reform and revolution.
In “Itinerary,” the college-bound narrator is flying alone from Chile to New Mexico, with a purse full of contacts and an itinerary set by her father that includes stops in Peru with his secretary, in Panama with a business associate and in Miami with an aunt. The narrator’s itinerary is eclipsed by the one that unfolds, which provides missing pieces of her father’s life.
Later stories are about mothers of young children, whose partners are distant, missing or dodgy with drugs, who try to hold the domestic scene together. In one of these, set outside a coastal village in Mexico, a violent act occurs amid stunning natural beauty. And the last story, about a retired teacher traveling alone in Mexico City, uses the stylized death of the bull in the ring to highlight the tragedy of unexpected death.
Juxtaposing beauty and brutality, affection and aggression, freedom and duty, these stories offer the feel of reality with the depth of distilled meaning. Although a few are slight, most vibrate with felt life.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance journalist and book reviewer who appears regularly on Kansas City’s NPR affiliate to dish about books with fellow book critics.
Evening in Paradise
By: Lucia Berlin.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 244 pages, $26.