My Cleaner – Maggie Gee

Maggie Gee describes food beautifully:

“She chops less fiercely, approving the marriage of reds and oranges, tomatoes and carrots, garnet-bright grapes, of apple-white celeriac and slivers of spring onion, the light and dark greens of the moonlets of cucumber, the silver-pale edges of the iceberg’s frills, the curves of the onion like the bole of a lute, and all of it sitting like grace on the plate, indisputably good for them, and she has made it.

It matters to Vanessa to do things right.”


“The earth has spilled roots out on to its lap, great brown and red tubers, white in cross-section where Mary has sawed some off for the pot. Great bullet-hard cabbages like dark green oilskins, with bulging white veins as strong as bone. Fat misshapen carrots like giant’s fingers, ringed with knuckles of dirt, trailing six inches of hair; tomatoes puffed and quilted like marrows, pinky-gold mangoes smelling faintly of rot; cocoa brown cassava as thick as a wrist; two enormous hands of black oversized bananas.”

But more than creating delicious imagery, these passages hint at the differences between the two central characters in My Cleaner: fussy, uptight Vanessa, and practical Mary.

Many years ago, Mary was Vanessa’s cleaner and helped looked after her young son, Justin. Now in his twenties, Justin is suffering from depression and asking for Mary. Although Mary returned to her native Uganda more than a decade ago, Vanessa writes to her to beg her to come to London to nurse Justin back to health.

The narrative slips easily between third person and first person and is told from the point of view of both Mary and Vanessa. Prejudices on both sides are exposed: Vanessa believes Mary to be lazy, Mary thinks Vanessa is ignorant. Misunderstandings are frequent, although both women feel that they are culturally aware.

In an article in Mslexia, Issue 41, Maggie Gee explained that using two first person viewpoints was crucial to My Cleaner. She needed the two main characters to be, “in dramatic and human terms, equal.” She had already been writing Vanessa in the first person but Mary was in the third. Gee realised this would “irrevocably skew the book towards Vanessa’s point of view. Here all the difficult questions arose: did I have the right to inhabit Mary Tendo’s mind? Would I get it wrong? Could I be Mary, in the first person?”

Reading My Cleaner, it was clear that Gee could indeed be Mary in the first person, writing in Mary’s voice just as convincingly as in Vanessa’s. The balance between the two points of view was perfect; I felt Vanessa’s frustration and Mary’s resentment in equal measures.

At times the character of Vanessa suffers from being a stereotypical pushy mother. Why can’t she see as Mary does that Justin is heartbroken and has no confidence left in himself?  Would a mother in that situation really tell her son that he is a disappointment? As the story unfolds and more about Vanessa’s background comes to light, it is easier to understand why she behaves the way she does and why she pushes Justin so hard.

The focus of the book gradually moves away from the differences between the two women and on to what they have in common. Both want to write about their childhoods, both want to return to their childhood homes, both have lost their sons, but in different ways. The narratives tie up to form a truly satisfying conclusion with a few pleasant surpries along the way.

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