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Off The Shelf - July

Welcome to my column where each month I’ll take a book from the shelf to share.

By Kate Rendell

After a run of NT focused reviews, this month I turn further afield to a debut work of non-fiction by American/Australian writer Sarah Krasnostein. Winning a number of recent awards, Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner is making waves across the literary scene. 

Listed variously under Biography/Crime and Thriller/Health, The Trauma Cleaner defies simple categorisation.

It is a biography. Yet its protagonist is not famous, nor does she occupy a profession that is usually afforded biographical treatment. Rather, Sandra Pankhurst is a forensic cleaner whose everyday work takes her into isolated or abandoned spaces marked by death, decay and despair.

In writing of Sandra’s cleaning work and the people she meets along the way, Krasnostein uncovers a world that is usually out of sight – veiled by taboo and grief.

Through stories of suicide, murder and hoarding, The Trauma Cleaner explores the extreme limits of who we are. Writing without judgement and with compassion, Krasnostein also reveals that such states are not so extreme after all – this could be any one of us.

Indeed Sandra herself is a figure marked by trauma and her complex past looms large in the book. Before she was a trauma cleaner, she was a husband and father, sex reassignment patient and sex worker, and in writing Sandra’s own story, Krasnostein has to grapple with complexities of memory and the damage left in the wake of abuse.  

I was incredibly moved and surprised by this remarkable book – it is fast paced, propelled by impressive writing and layered story. At its conclusion however, I was also left feeling a little uneasy.

The ‘magnificent’ Sandra is indeed extraordinary and she really cares about the marginalised people she works with. But she is also an unwieldy character and unreliable witness.

Krasnostein writes that her book is a ‘love letter’ to Sandra and this positioning at times teeters on the edge of sentimentalism. Despite Krasnostein’s best efforts and my true admiration of Sandra’s resilience, I was less enamoured than deeply saddened by Sandra. 

Similarly, the fascination with people’s state of crises felt at times voyeuristic – particularly in the case of hoarders, whose homes are intricately and intimately exposed in the book.

While reading the truly putrid descriptions of these scenes, I was left with many questions about the psychological context of hoarding and the services and supports available.

Somehow simply exposing these spaces didn’t quite seem enough.

Ultimately though, The Trauma Cleaner is a fascinating work of non-fiction that left me thinking deeply about the complex, often tragic, lives that many people endure – often out of sight and mind. 

Kate Rendell works as a Communications Manager in the arts. She is also a freelance writer and researcher. First and foremost though she is a reader.

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