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How You Look to Your Cleaning Lady : THE NEWSPAPER OF CLAREMONT STREET by Elizabeth Jolley (Viking: $14.95; 116 pp.)

January 03, 1988|Judith Freeman | Freeman's collection of stories, "Family Attractions" will be published by Viking in March

When I was young, I had a weekly job. I cleaned house for a woman who taught homemaking skills at the local girl's reform school. Each Saturday, I scraped wax off her floors, vacuumed her carpets, and otherwise rid her house of dirt while she recuperated from what must have been a hard job of trying to make cooks out of delinquents.

One thing I remember from that experience is how you come to know all sorts of things about people when you clean their house. You see their efforts to control things, how messiness is fought or succumbed to. You see what can't be hidden. Above all, you glimpse the complex efforts to simply make a home.

Elizabeth Jolley, an Australian writer whose previous novels ("Foxybaby," "The Well") have earned critical praise as well as a growing number of readers, has created a wonderful character in her novel, "The Newspaper of Claremont Street." The "newspaper" isn't a newspaper at all but a human being, an aging woman who earns her living by cleaning other people's houses.

Sometimes called "Weekly," the Newspaper is a source of entertaining gossip. From one house to another, she carries tales. She's also an object of ridicule for local boys--an oddity in the neighborhood in her secondhand clothes. At the corner grocery, shopgirls taunt her for the latest bit of sensational news: "What happened to that man who sawed off all his fingers at the timber yard?" they ask Weekly, nudging each other.

But neither the shopgirls nor the people whose houses Weekly cleans see what we the readers do, and that is what a keen observer of life Weekly really is, how clearly she sees her own existence as well as the struggles of others, symbolized by "their dead flowers drooping in stained, treasured vases." She recognizes all the things the people do and don't do to try to clean up the mess of their lives.

Weekly, who never married and lives alone, is driven by a secret goal, which is to own a place in the country. She's obsessed by the idea and saves all she can. On top of her fridge is her stash of money, and to this, each day, she adds her meager coins. Then she eats a thrifty dinner of boiled vegetables. Sometimes she dreams of her mother, now dead, and her ne'er-do-well brother, who disappeared after Weekly unwittingly betrayed him. These flashbacks are skillfully interwoven, perfectly subtle and concise revelations of character.

The obsession to own a house in the country is the struggle of hope against hopelessness. The mutable and the ugly and all that is tragic about the human condition, the labors at the bottom of life, can be endured as long as one has the dream of the house and a little bit of land.

This dream is very similar, in fact, to that of Mr. Biswas in V. S. Naipaul's brilliant novel, "A House for Mr. Biswas." One finds, in these two books, humor mixed with pathos, a humanist's understanding of suffering, and I don't think it's merely coincidental that idiom and locales that seem remote to us (Trinidad in the case of Naipaul, Western Australia in the case of Jolley) figure in. There is an edge to life many Americans will never know because, by and large, we do not clean each others' houses for a living; we do not labor at the bottom; we have immigrants who do that for us, and even for those who do not escape the work of drudgery, the dream of a house in the country would be usurped by more pressing and overwhelming concerns: how to keep kids straight? how to eat this week? how to find any housing? In this America, a house in the country is specious. It's as remote as the moon.

It's inevitable that Weekly's life is beset by troubles, foremost of which is an aging Russian crackpot, Nastasya (or "Narsty," as Weekly calls her) and her husband, for whom Weekly occasionally cleans and cooks. When Narsty's husband dies, she comes to rely on Weekly more and more, until she finally moves in with her and takes over.

Just as Weekly, now an old woman, finally has the money to buy her house in the country, she finds herself saddled with Narsty. She tries to dump her in a nursing home, but each time she sets out to take her there, Narsty begins praising the beauty of things--the trees in bud, the fineness of the day--and Weekly cannot bring herself to cut Narsty off from this natural world, which has been the source of her own hopes and dreams for so long.

This relationship between Narsty and Weekly, which has all the classic elements of comedy and tragedy, is played out against the wrestling of conscience that can only be resolved by action, which, when it comes at the book's end, is swift and black-humored.

Every word of this spare little novel is right. To live is to struggle. It's all a very funny and very sad business, but hope flutters throughout, like a bird thwarted by a transparent pane, hovering at the glass.

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