The Trauma Cleaner is a subtly layered narrative which asks questions about identity, memory and the way the people and things around us give us our sense of who we are. It is the biography of Sandra Pankhurst, the trauma cleaner of the title, and the story of how her work in an apparently difficult and unappealing area allows both her healing and her clients’. There is also a quietly building sense that the author’s preoccupation with Sandra’s story relates to her own past.
Sandra Pankhurst has lived not one but a number of extraordinary lives: boy, husband, sex worker, gender reassignment patient, wife and successful business woman. She has also been the victim of a number of horrific crimes, and the book highlights the prejudice and legal discrimination faced by sex workers, the gay and transgender communities and during her lifetime.
The chapters alternate between Sandra’s past and her present. Each of the present chapters tells the story of one of her house-cleaning assignments. She is called in to deal with the aftermath of crime, decomposing corpses, hoarding and infestation .
The author shows the strength and compassion Sandra brings to her clients as well as the physically and emotionally demanding nature of the work and the demands it places on her staff. Some of these chapters work better than others. While we can learn something about people by excavating (in some cases literally) their homes, searching for the meaning in possessions has its limits. A teetering pile of old, rotting newspapers is ultimately just that. The chapters where the homeowner is present and shares something of their story are more interesting.
Sandra’s memories are fragmented and contradictory. There are significant periods where she says she can remember nothing at all and the author has relied on other sources. Perhaps because of the trauma she has experienced, there are a number of points in her life where she cuts herself off completely and starts afresh, meaning there is no friend or family member who has known her throughout her life, who can confirm or contradict her perceptions of herself. She has also hurt many of the people she has left behind.
The gaps and inconsistencies somehow add to the authenticity. Memories are always incomplete and unreliable, and the family myth or the well worn anecdote are just as likely to be flawed, reshaped by each telling, moulded by the expectations of the group.
In trying to build rebuild Sandra’s life piece by piece from archive sources and the people who knew her, the author allows the reader space to imagine and create their own version of her story. And just like the author, the image we have of Sandra, and the way we relate to her, reflects something back about our needs, experiences and sense of self.
I was left with a vivid impression of a complex, courageous character and an awe of the capacity of humanity both to harm and to heal.
I received a copy of The Trauma Cleaner from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Trauma Cleaner on Goodreads
The Trauma Cleaner is on the shortlist for the Wellcome Book Prize 2019.