Welcome Home: A Memoir with Selected Photographs and Letters
By Lucia Berlin
Along with Evening in Paradise, this winter treats us to even more Lucia Berlin with Welcome Home, her memoir. The American author (1936–2004), like many artists, welled many of her beautifully wrought narratives from her own experiences. Whereas Evening in Paradise is a straightforward selection of Berlin’s short stories – located across the vastly ranging geographies and circumstances discernible from the details of her biography – this simultaneous publication, generously furnished with photographs and letters, offers us a more directly communicated rendition of her life’s events.
Edited by her son, Jeff Berlin, this book reproduces, in its first section, the last version of the author’s memoir – the titular manuscript was sadly incomplete at the time of her death. It was, for the author, to be a series of remembrances of the many, many homes she had inhabited throughout her life, presented, as Jeff states in the book’s introduction, ‘in sequence and no longer masquerading as fiction.’ The last version of the manuscript ends in 1965, with an unfinished sentence.
By the time the author reached the age of 29, however, there was plenty of life to recount. Her life-long, extensively nomadic existence had brought her from an adolescence in Chile to New Mexico, New York, and the bohemian enclaves of Mexican beach towns. This existence had also given her three marriages, of varying levels of turbulence, and four sons. If Berlin saw, as she indicated, her own written work as a portable domestic enclave, there was, of this time, certainly much to write home about.
The memoir, being relatively short, occupies the first half of the book. ‘The Trouble with All the Houses I’ve Lived In’, a concise and humorously annotated list of the author’s widely dispersed residential history, provides an interval, of sorts. The second section presents ‘Selected Letters, 1944–65’. These were written during the events recounted in the first section. The majority consists of Berlin’s warm-hearted correspondence with friends Edward and Helen Dorn, and offers additional insight into tumultuous years that seem to have been by turns romantic, exciting, strained, and terrifying.
The autobiographical accounts are generously integrated with photographs of the scenery, characters and structures so dazzlingly depicted in the author’s work. These images provide wonderful reference points, and their presence – and inevitable grayscale, until we reach the 1950s – in fact emphasises Berlin’s immense talent for communicating descriptive detail through language. Scenes from her ever-shifting childhood, which give credence to this reviewer’s belief that frequent relocations at an early age may enhance early episodic memory, are conveyed in expressive, painterly bursts: ‘Outside the back door the cream popped up from the milk bottles every morning. There was an ice storm and the trees sounded like shattering glass.’
Those already familiar with Berlin’s writing will be greatly rewarded by these texts, where equivalences with her short stories are easily detected, and the gaps between them hold even greater intrigue. Rich with the language and lifestyles of mid-twentieth century US bohemia, Welcome Home is warmly welcomed, indeed.
Words: Catherine Gaffney