In writing this book, Ellender seeks to better understand her grandmother, yes, but also herself and her mother who, at the time of writing this book, has been diagnosed with cancer. Writing Elisabeth’s Lists becomes a list in and of itself, a ‘catalogue to hold chaos’, because we believe ‘a list can make us immortal’. It holds similar themes to Sight by Jessie Greengrass, who wrote: ‘without reflection, without the capacity to trace our lives backwards and pick the patterns out, we become liable to act as animals do... We lay ourselves open to unbalance.’
Ellender notes that we make lists to ‘write things into being’. Elisabeth struggled with her mental health throughout her life, and list-making was one of her coping mechanisms. Travelling from place to place was always a constant, and the lists to organise those moves externalised her worries and were attempts to ease her anxiety. However, as Ellender writes: ‘here’s the thing we sometimes forget about travel: wherever we go, we take ourselves with us.’
Elisabeth’s Lists is a beautiful tapestry of family life. I know some think it sacrilegious to annotate books, especially with a pen —once a woman shouted at me on the bus for doing this very thing— but I always annotate, underlining phrases and making notes in the margin. It’s akin to having a conversation with the text, letting your thoughts spiderweb and tangle. As Elisabeth’s Lists was one of my final reads of 2019, I went one step further and made a list of my favourite books of the year on its rear endpapers. It seemed rather fitting, and I’m sure that neither Lulah Ellender or Elisabeth would mind — after all, this book was on that list, too.
This book club review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell, whose latest book is The Girl Aquarium. Please let us know your thoughts on Elisabeth's Lists and we will enter you into a prize draw to receive a copy of our next book, The God Child by Nana Oforiatta Ayim.