the observer Sat 12 September 2009
Antigona is a refugee, from Kosovo. In March 1999, four armed Serbian policemen came to her door, claiming that her husband had information about the Kosovan Liberation Army. Antigona hadn't seen him for a long while, but the Serbs did not believe her. One held Antigona and two of her children at gunpoint in the kitchen; the others dragged her 13-year-old daughter, Flora, on to the roof and told her to scream for help from her father, the father who was not there. When no answer came, the men threw her off.
Kate Clanchy meets Antigona, newly housed in the UK, in spring 2001. After a few minutes of conversation, overwhelmed by the sensation of having made an important connection, Clanchy offers Antigona a job as her cleaner. It takes five years of friendship for Antigona's story to emerge: her escape from the war, her divorce from a violent husband, her struggle with the extraordinarily interfering code under which she was raised, the Kanun of Lek. Under the Kanun, women exist only as men's property. Wives can be replaced if they do not produce sons, beaten for idleness, killed if they prove false. In divorcing her husband, Antigona has transgressed the code spectacularly.
Through the Kanun, which enshrines blood vengeance, men cleanse themselves of shame with fresh blood, "and clear the air with gunpowder", while women wash. So Antigona's war against dirt is imbued with a spiritual zeal. The Kanun "makes no allowances for mud, or for accidents, or for human weakness". Antigona's scouring is a way of protecting what remains of her honour; a way of asserting her inner cleanliness.
One woman's salvation can be another's damnation, however, and Clanchy brilliantly teases out the role she plays in compounding Antigona's powerlessness. Cleaners, she writes, are the modern working woman's dirty secret; they "paper over the holes in our lengthily negotiated, self-conscious, hopeful marriages". Clanchy worries that in writing Antigona's story she may be conscripting her into another kind of servitude. The opposite is true. This is a compelling portrait of an extraordinary woman, written with a poet's precision.