Book review: The Trauma Cleaner, by Sarah Krasnostein
Updated: Dec 30, 2020
This is not a new book (published in 2017), but after finally getting around to reading it this week, I felt compelled to share a few thoughts about it.
The Trauma Cleaner is an intimate glimpse into the extraordinary life of Sandra Pankhurst, a specialist in cleaning houses marked by trauma, including unattended death, hoarding and squalor. I say glimpse, because a life as layered and tumultuous as Sandra’s would easily warrant more than one novel-length book.
As Krasnostein takes us alongside Sandra into the homes of a number of her clients, we learn about Sandra’s traumatic childhood and adolescence, her first marriage (then known as Peter), the breakdown of that marriage and Sandra’s painful journey towards embodying her true gender identity. We also follow Sandra’s career through a range of incarnations including nightclub performer, funeral director and shopkeeper.
Despite her oft-traumatic past, or more likely because of it, Sandra brings a unique respect and empathy to her clients, steadfastly refusing to pass any kind of judgement, even in the most alarming situations (think: homes full of shoulder-high rubbish piles, bloodstained carpets, accumulated years of pet mess…)
Equally as extraordinary as Sandra’s story is the way it is told by Krasnostein. Dealing with subject matter that could easily lend itself to bleak retelling, Krasnostein describes Sandra’s journey with a tender lyricism that gently amplifies its emotional spell.
Usually in a non-fiction work we expect the author to disappear, but one of this book’s strengths is that Krasnostein evidently found herself unable to be a clinical observer. She is frequently moved by Sandra’s life story – at times even frustrated and angered by some of Sandra’s decisions. It is this emotional attachment with her subject that makes Krasnostein’s book so difficult to put down, and such an essential reading experience.