THE TRAUMA CLEANER
by Sarah Krasnostein
(Text, $40)
Reviewed by Helen van Berkel

We humans manage to get ourselves into some terrible messes. Sometimes it is not of our making - sometimes life gets too down and dirty to deal with. And when that happens, Sandra Pankhurst is the person you should hope comes along.

Pankhurst is a forensic cleaner who clears up after murders, suicides, horrors. But she doesn't only clean up after the dead, she also cleans up the living themselves: the first client we meet is a deeply damaged woman who paints her trauma on the walls of her rat-infested house.

Her story is probably one of the most touching, thoughtful and thought-provoking you will ever read. Sarah Krasnostein tells it with moving compassion, even love, and also helps us to understand the unexpectedly immaculate Pankhurst with her acrylic nails and glowing white shoes.

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We learn she was born a boy and then, at the hands of her parents, endured shocking abuse and rejection during her miserable childhood. The Trauma Cleaner gives an insight into blighted lives and how people deal - or do not - with the rotten hands they are unfortunate enough to be dealt.

You begin to see how the damaged Pankhurst is also cleaning up after her own horrific childhood. She is giving to others the love, the honour and non-judgmental human embrace that she didn't have, growing up as the adopted effeminate son of an abusive alcoholic in post-war Australia.

We learn of her struggles as a teenager, then as a young man - even husband and father - as she comes to terms with her experiences and learns who she is. Pankhurst has turned outward her own shocking horrors and the rejection of difference in a judgmental society and uses her pain to help others.

Her story is compelling by itself but Krasnostein's lovely writing brings her to life without judgment or schmaltz. She tells not only Pankhurst's story but also the stories of those she meets as she goes about her work: the damaged ones, the rejected ones, the ones who have given up.

Pankhurst matter-of-factly picks them up, cleans them off and sends them on their way, no doubt different - hopefully stronger - people after having come into contact with such a remarkable woman.