Author: Sally Page
This book was recommended by a member of the project book club I formed for the #WECAN project. It came as a recommendation because I said I loved books by Libby Page and want to find an author who writes similarly since I read everything she wrote. By similar, I mean stories about humans, communities and/or water 😊
The book did not disappoint me. It is a beautiful story of class struggle and downward social mobility as well as the story of humans and how everyone, absolutely everyone, can make a difference in another human life.
In the book, we meet Janice, a cleaner who works in Cambridge and cleans for middle- and upper-class people. Janice is a keeper of stories because she listens to people and lets them talk to her, often over a cup of coffee, and she collects those stories in her head. The stories help her deal with daily struggles as she can replay them in her head. She also sometimes listens to stories on public transport and then fills the gap herself. Through her story, we meet her clients and learn their stories including Mrs B, an amazing woman who was formerly an MI6 spy but now lives on her own at age 92 and mourns her husband, also a former MI6 spy. We also meet Fiona and other characters in the book, all interesting albeit nobody beats Mrs B, a former spy, a difficult woman with a gigantic heart, and a British Scheherazade who tells stories herself. I will not go into details about these stories not to spoil the book but rest assured, the characters are interesting and Janet’s willingness to listen and her enormous empathy helps her clients thus proving she was always more than ‘just a cleaner’.
But what strikes me in this book is that it brings about the ultimate sociological debate about professions, functionalism vs Marxism and what is the place of humans in society. Janet feels she is ‘just a cleaner’ and as if she does not matter. She feels invisible despite people talking to her, having coffee and tea with her and telling her stories. You read the book and you end up trying to talk to Janet and telling her off; ‘you do matter you silly bugger’ is what I said a few times. But this ultimately opens a question why do we feel bad about ourselves for doing what we do? What is it that everyone needs to do to feel valuable? I have always been of an opinion that humans should do what they do best and that no job should be less appreciated than the other. I was teaching this, many years ago at my former University, as part of the Introduction to Sociology module. We discussed functionalism, Marxism and other sociological theories and an example I often used was a salary of an academic vs a bus driver or a cleaner. Interestingly, Janet is a cleaner in this book and she also gets acquainted with a bus driver. My argument was always that a job of a cleaner should not be less valued than the job of an academic because whilst I do research, create knowledge and teach young people, someone is also cleaning the street. If they did not, not only there would be rubbish everywhere but this would be a public health crisis. So, the debate and inner struggle of Janet really read well throughout the book and it makes the reader reflect.
The other thing is the story of class because Janet is of middle-class origin and loves books. The latter was a disappointment because I initially loved the working-class character who reads a lot as it goes against the prejudice of working-class people not being keen on education but then, things got fixed with a bus driver who is a son of a fisherman who later opened a book store. The story does have a class and societal element of tackling professions and prejudice, but also the issue of social mobility, which is a downward one for Janice. At the same time, we also have the issue of class with clients, with some being obnoxious snobs but others being nice, thus the message being not to judge the book by its cover.
In the same spirit, if you do not like the colour blue (my favourite so I was sold on the book either way), do not judge it until you read it. I loved it!
Thank you for reading!