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Elisabeth's Lists by Lulah Ellender | Book Club

BOOK CLUB

Author Jen Campbell reviews Elisabeth's Lists by Lulah Ellender for TOAST Book Club.

‘My mother is standing in her kitchen holding a small red-brown, marbled hardback journal. She tells me that it belonged to her mother, Elisabeth... She’s not sure what to do with it and thinks I might like it. But there is a spark in her eyes. She knows it is no ordinary book.’

Elisabeth’s Lists is no ordinary book, either. Every so often, you open a text and sink into it; it fits like a glove — or like one of Elisabeth’s dresses, which Lulah Ellender tries on, marvelling at how she feels as though she has stepped straight into her grandmother’s skin. Elisabeth’s Lists is an exploration of family history, memoir, list-making, and Ellender says that it was a book that ‘grew out of a moment’, the moment when her mother handed her a book of lists made by her mother (Ellender’s grandmother) between the years 1939-1957, including items to pack when moving abroad, household inventories, and a table tracking the number of eggs her chickens laid over the course of a year. Using this list book and Elisabeth’s journals as jumping off points, Ellender sits down to write about the grandmother she never knew, deftly bringing her to life.

Elisabeth was born in 1915, the daughter of a British Ambassador, and she moved to China in 1931 when her father was posted abroad. Whilst there, she and her siblings were looked after by Rose Large, a woman known as Nanny, who remained part of Elisabeth’s family (later looking after Elisabeth’s own children, before living with her sister) until she died at the age of ninety-seven. As Elisabeth died when Ellender’s mother was only nine years old, Nanny was their main source for family stories. Ellender notes that Nanny ‘was fond of Rich Tea biscuits… and would regale [them] with tales of her adventures in service, like the time in China when she stamped on a tarantula with such force that the paper walls of the house in which they were staying collapsed’.

Indeed, this book, although firmly based in fact, is littered with characters you would be delighted to find in a novel, such as Elisabeth’s father-in-law who ran an ambulance service during the Spanish Civil War in order to smuggle refugees out of the country, her uncle-in-law who climbed Mount Blanc despite having a wooden leg, and Mrs Weddell ‘whose knickers fell off at a tea-party’. The events are often novellike, too: whilst living in China, for instance, Elisabeth was shot through the head and rescued by a man called Gerry, who she later married.

The book then follows Elisabeth as she and Gerry, a British diplomat, live in the UK, Spain, Lebanon, Brazil and France. Each chapter begins with a photocopy of one of Elisabeth’s lists, and the narrative sometimes quotes directly from her journals, and at other times is crafted by Ellender’s imagination. In the introduction, Ellender discusses how much artistic licence she is going to grant herself. She admits that her writing of her grandmother’s life is her reading of it; that this text is her truth and no one else’s. It’s one step on from Barthes’ Death of the Author where a text, once in the world, belongs to all of us, and there’s something haunting and charming about that. It does not matter that we are reading Ellender’s interpretation — after all, even Elisabeth’s journals, though written for herself, involve an element of performance. We are all of us constantly trying on outfits. 

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 AquariumPlease 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.

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