My Cleaner is the story of two very different women, living two very different lifestyles, with very little comprehension of how things are different for each other. Vanessa Henman is a white, middle class single mother living in London, although her son is an adult, but has sunk into a deep depression and very rarely leaves his room. Mary Tendo is a fiercely proud Ugandan woman who was previously employed as Vanessa's cleaner, and unofficial childminder, but who returned to Uganda many years since.
Struggling to know how to deal with her son, Justin,Vanessa writes a desperate letter to Mary, asking her to return and work for her again as 'nanny' to Justin, in an attempt to raise him from his depression. Surprisingly, Mary accepts the offer and returns, although she is motivated primarily by the monetary reward, although her love for Justin comes across strongly in her conversations. The dialogue between these two women, and their differences and similarities make up the bulk of this story, with the added thread of Justin's recovery and reasons for his depression, and a more sombre storyline involving Mary's own child, who went missing in Libya a few years before the events in this book, and who Mary fears is dead.
The book is generally a small story about these two women, and the complexities of their relationship, but it would be impossible to write this story, and make it authentic without including some background about the wider worlds in which both women live. I think this is done better with Mary's descriptions of her life in Uganda, but maybe that is just because it is less familiar to me. The descriptions of a busy, working mother in London and a busy working woman in Africa are compared wonderfully, along with occasional references to the low paid status of African people living and working in service to British people. The bias of this book seems to be that Mary's hard but fulfilling life in Uganda is of a better quality than Vanessa's superficial one in London, but there are small hints that it is not all it seems.
At first reading, the differences between the women come across more obviously than any possible similarities. Vanessa is a high flying college lecturer and author who spends most of her time working and has no time for Justin, or her home, whilst Mary seems to have all the time in the world for this boy. Mary cannot stomach what she calls all the 'white food' that Vanessa serves up, and soon takes over the kitchen, producing some very vividly described meals using fresh, usually African vegetables.
The women are characterised wonderfully, both through their own actions and their conversations with each other. they at times seem to be at cross purposes and both seem to feel they have the upper hand. This book is obviously raising issues of gentle racism, as Vanessa is repeatedly written voicing sweeping assumptions about Africans in general. it is definitely a not very subtle dig at middle class racism, with Vanessa constantly assuming that Mary is grateful for the supposed better quality of life that Vanessa is providing for her, and allowing her liberties, because she is African, the implication being that she doesn't know any better. Yet, in a much more subtle way, the racism can be seen to work both ways. Mary is viciously proud of her status as an African woman, and makes reference to this herself as something that is superior to Vanessa. Neither of the women seem to have any sympathy for each other, and each other's lives, and although life for Justin comes together well at the conclusion, which was the whole purpose of Mary's stay in London, the two women part with their lives just as much in turmoil as they were at the start.
I think what makes this book work so well is the gentle humour that is used, both in the author's narrative and in the two women's conversations with each other. The conversations they have are seen from either one perspective or the other, occasionally both, and the different ways they both view the speech and actions of the other is told with such a humorous slant that you can't fail to be amused by the culture clash and complete lack of understanding. It's quite a sad subject to treat with humour, but it's probably the only way it could be told.