The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein
When I picked this book to read from the Wellcome Book Prize longlist for 2019, I had no idea what an amazing person we would meet within its pages. I just knew that it was the story of a woman who runs a trauma cleaning business in Australia, where it has already won and been shortlisted for many literary prizes. It was only when Laura (who reviewed it last summer here) passed on her copy to me that I realised it was more than that, but I’ll come to that later.
Krasnostein spent several years getting to know Sandra Pankhurst, a formidable businesswoman in her early sixties. STS is no ordinary cleaning company. Sandra and her team are the ones called in to deal with sanitising houses after people have died one way or another, to sort out the houses of hoarders, house clearances, property neglect and so on. It’s a job that you need a strong stomach for, a real expertise for dealing with the stains, bacteria, mould, rats and mice, dead flies, bed bugs and other live insects, pet detritus, clinical waste and, of course, bodily fluids and the products of their break down and effects on whatever they touch. Sandra has all the qualifications, and as her brochure says:
People do not understand about bodily fluids. Bodily fluids are like acids. They have all the same enzymes that break down our food. When these powerful enzymes come into contact with furnishings and the like, deterioration is rapid. I have know enzymes to soak through a sofa and to eat at the springs, mould growing throughout a piece of furniture, and I have witnessed the rapid deterioration of a contaminated matress.
You also need compassion and understanding to deal with those clients who are still alive, who are usually mentally ill, and tact when dealing with their families who may not be aware of the extent of the problems. Empathy is something Sandra has in spades full, she knows exactly how to get her living clients on her side by showing them she’s on their side, then she can ease them into letting go of things. She’s also an extremely generous person; she has a garage full of furniture, white goods etc saved from disposal and cleaned, which she’ll give to clients to set up their homes again when they’ve had to dispose of everything because it was unhygienic or rotten. Krasnostein visits a variety of clients with Sandra, mostly hoarders, observing her team in action, watching Sandra negotiate with the clients.
But this is only one half of the story. The other is that of Sandra herself, a life in pieces that Krasnostein does her best to reassemble into a chronology that works. Sandra is not, as she explains, “a flawlessly unreliable narrator.” Over the years, she has herself suffered much trauma and it started with her parents when she was a boy called Peter. Adopted by Ailsa and Bill, her parents lost interest in her once they managed to have another son, and Peter was beaten and consigned to live in a shed in the yard, rarely being fed. Peter realised that he was different, but still he conformed, marrying Linda in his early twenties and having two sons. It was then that he realised he should be a woman, abandoning his wife and sons and embarking on the long road towards gender reassignment surgery. This was in the 1980s, when it was exceedingly difficult for transgender people to have normal jobs. Working as a sex worker which was at first the only path open, she was raped, but finally met an understanding man whom she married and ultimately became owner of her own business.
There is no doubting Sandra’s desire to work or her resilience and her need to live a normal life as a woman. It’s a lonely life though, now on her own, and battling with chronic lung and liver disease due to the combined effects of all the drugs (of all kinds) and hormones she’s taken over the years. Krasnostein gets permission to speak with Linda, who too has survived, but never gets to the bottom of why Sandra cut off the contact to her sons as she did. There are gaps and misrememberings in Sandra’s story which leads to a certain amount of confusion, bittyness and repetition in the middle which was a little frustrating. Krasnostein is, however, upfront in an author’s note prefacing the book stating that, “parts of her biographical story have required imaginative reconstruction.”
The chapters alternate between Sandra’s trauma cleaning business and her life story – which is punctuated by three short photo sections which move from golden-haired youth, to drag queen and confident woman. I agree with Laura in that Sandra’s current life is more interesting in its detail, and I would have liked to read more of Sandra’s interactions with those who call her in, be they authorities, direct clients, grieving families, and also more about her employees – who must be an interesting bunch themselves.
Krasnostein’s account does tend to rather overdo her praise of Sandra and can be overblown at times; it’s clear that she loves her subject, and views her book as helping Sandra in: “…clearing away the clutter of her life out of basic respect for the inherent value of the person beneath.”
Despite my small reservations, I was glad to have read this book. It was an easy read despite its oft grim subject matter, fascinating and very sympathetic too. I can’t tell whether it will make the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, but would be happy to see it there. I shall leave you with a killer quote from near the end of the prologue.
Using words as disinfectants, we are trauma cleaning.
Source: Laura – thank you.
Sarah Krasnostein, The Trauma Cleaner (Text Publishing, 2018) trade paperback, 261 pages. BUY at Amazon UK via affiliate link below.