I read this book a while ago. Early September of 2019, just after the end of my August camping vacation in northern France. I must have started reading it during the trip, as it was yet another one of the books lingering quietly on my Kindle for a few years. Not sure why I was under the impression that it’s some kind of chick-lit or another type of easy reading. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The story revolves around two women: Vanessa Henman, a divorced blocked writer, teaching creative writing class, mother of Justin, and Marie Tendo, a divorced former cleaner from Uganda, mother of a missing son, formerly Vanessa’s cleaner. As we meet our characters Marie is back in Uganda, getting on with her life, about to be married, while Vanessa’s life is falling apart, Justin is depressed and refuses to leave his room and she is completely not able to write or to cope with her life. In an act of desperation, she writes a letter to Marie asking her to come back to London and help Justin. And Marie agrees, stronger person now than the first time around, but also keen on earning the money to settle her life in Uganda.
The two women could not be more different if they tried. Vanessa, white, privileged though from a poor background she’s ashamed of, spoilt, controlling, whiny and avoiding any food that is not beige. And Marie, black, earning her place at the university only to end up as a leaner in London, making her way back, full of life, eager for happiness despite all the disappointments and obstacles, an excellent cook and voracious eater. As Marie works on bringing Justin back to the land of the living, she gradually takes over Vanessa’s home. Impacting everyone she interacts with. At one point when Vanessa still complaining about her inability to write, Marie decides to see for herself how difficult is it. She starts writing her own autobiography, growing stronger and on the way editing some of her life’s mistakes.
As it appears Marie manages not only to work her magic with Justing, but also to find her own writing voice and lands a publishing deal. She knows though she will not stay in London, and wants to get back to her life in Uganda as soon as the problems are dealt with. Vanessa meanwhile is falling apart. None of her prejudices can hold longer, her casual racism is challenged at every step, by her son and ex-husband, both of whom side with Marie. Effectively Vanessa feels completely left alone, having abandoned her embarrassing country-side family and being emotionally abandoned by her son, who she pined on.
Gee manages something that’s not an easy trick, she develops two strong women characters, very different from one another, each with her own idiosyncrasies, each annoying in different ways. But at various points of the book, we feel for both of them. Instinctively siding more with Marie we come round at some point, feeling sympathy for Vanessa.
It was a beautiful and surprisingly uplifting book about family life, about things we leave behind, about growing older and stronger, but also about racism, class society and how difficult it is to overcome prejudices so entrenched that we cannot see them clearly. The way Marie and Vanessa were developed, their difficult relationship was fascinating.
Also as uplifting as the book is, it’s not a clean and simple happy ending of a sugar-coated love and friendship. It is harsh and realistic, but the uplifting quality comes from the faith in people, the belief that we can be better and we’re not bad at our core, we may become so due to our decisions, but it’s possible to overcome some of that. Let’s be honest, the book is also extremely funny at times and this mixture of good-natured laughter, sharp observation skills and faith in people makes it a compelling read, even when it shows the ugly side of our nature.
I wish I’d come across more books like this! I’ll definitely be reading other books by Maggie Gee.
Quotes from My Cleaner