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‘Elisabeth’s Lists: A Life Between the Lines’ by Lulah Ellender ***

I remember seeing an interview on television with Lulah Ellender, the author of Elisabeth’s Lists: A Life Between the Lines.  This biography of her grandmother, which she pieced together after being given a book of the varied lists which she had made during her lifetime, really piqued my interest, and I subsequently borrowed a copy from my local library.  I thought that the book would be surrounded by quite a lot of buzz; rather, I was surprised to find that when I looked on the Goodreads page to mark it as ‘currently reading’, the book had just 30 ratings, and 8 reviews.

This Granta publication has been described by the Guardian as ‘a hauntingly beautiful 9781783783830meditation on life and death’, and by the London Review of Books as ‘a perceptive and original book… as much a meditation on the meaning of lists as it is a biography.’  The Spectator says that ‘Ellender researches, uncovers, interprets, comments and responds to the life of her grandmother with uninhibited insight.’

The inspiration for Elisabeth’s Lists came when Ellender’s mother gave her ‘a curious object – a book of handwritten lists’.  From these, all of which were, on the surface, quite ordinary, she began to ‘weave together the extraordinary life of the grandmother she never knew, from Elisabeth’s early years as an ambassador’s daughter in 1930s China to her marriage to a British diplomat and postings in Franco’s Madrid, post-war Beirut, Rio de Janeiro and Paris.’  The lists in Elisabeth’s notebook were written between 1939 and 1957, the year in which she died.  They encompass many things; from ‘an inventory of household linen to a record of the number of eggs her chickens laid over the course of a year, Elisabeth itemised her days, page after page…’.

Ellender, facing the impending death of her mother from cancer, finds solace in these lists.  The ‘small red-brown marbled hardback journal’ was passed to her, she says, as her mother was ‘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; she is giving it to me so that I can find things, dig down into my family’s past and show her the treasures I uncover.  She is entrusting me with her mother’s story.’

Ellender goes on to note in her prologue the rules which she made for herself whilst writing Elisabeth’s Lists: ‘It is important to me that Elisabeth’s story is told as faithfully as possible, but I am also acutely aware that this is my reading of her, and that other people may have constructed a different version of this same person.’

I am a prolific list-maker myself, and read with interest the historic practices of list-making which Ellender covers, and which span as far back as writing itself.  She writes of the power which making a simple list gives us: ‘We formulate endless lists of our top films, books or music, of things to do and places to see before we die, as though they might provide both proof of our existence and a legacy for future generations.  We believe that a list can make us immortal.’

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One of Elisabeth’s lists

The chapters within Elisabeth’s Lists are split into geographical places in which Elisabeth either lived, or spent time.  Born in 1915, Elisabeth’s ‘short life was characterised by movement and displacement.  The book of lists mirrors this constant shifting, with numerous lists for various diplomatic postings and items to be put into storage.’  Many of these postings, and the subsequent instability of her life, were bound up with the mental illness which Elisabeth suffered from for a long time.  When living in Peking (now Beijing) in her early twenties, for instance, Ellender writes: ‘Some days her world is blanketed in a crepuscular shroud, people and objects are dim and far away and she feels as if she is standing alone in a vast, empty expanse.  Sometimes she just wants to go home.’

This concept of home, too, is an interesting one, which I feel deserved more space in the book.  When the family move back to London from Peking, Elisabeth is initially excited, but negativity soon begins to creep in: ‘She knows that she “ought” to be feeling happy to be back but she is, in fact, lost and desperate…  She also describes times of feeling unbearably restless, her mind in turmoil, of being violently antisocial and staying in bed for two days of depression.’  There is much historical content included in Elisabeth’s Lists, and for the most part this has been well handled.  Ellender particularly excels at writing about wartime, and how her grandmother, stationed in Madrid, dealt with it.

When Elisabeth gets married, her book of lists ‘becomes a reference point from which she will run her household, and to which she will turn in times of anxiety and bustle and joy.’  She records inventories of wedding presents, of property; lists of guests for the many parties which she threw; menus for entertaining…  Photocopies of some of Elisabeth’s lists have been included in the book; unfortunately, these are often blurred, faint, and not at all easy to read.  This is a real shame, given that the entire biography was inspired by, and is based around, them.

I prefer reading biographies of ordinary people to famous ones; they tend to offer so much more with regard to the real world.  Nothing about Elisabeth can really be considered ordinary; she travelled so much more than many people of her time, and lived with a lot of privilege.  As Ellender notes, ‘Elisabeth’s was an extraordinary existence: a curious mixture of maintaining a British way of life, and discovering the authentic essence of a place.  Looking back over the places she lived we see an existence built on impermanence and marked by contrasts.’

Elisabeth’s Lists is certainly readable, but I did feel as though some portions of it were quite overwritten.  The prose feels a little too flowery, and too overdone at times.  There is an imagined narrative from Elisabeth’s perspective, which uses the present tense; for instance: ‘It is morning.  Elisabeth crouches on a patch of dusty soil, draping some clothes on a rock to dry.  A canvas tent flaps behind her, and nearby, a kettle splutters over a fire.’  Similar sections have been placed randomly throughout the narrative, and seem like something of a creative writing exercise, really; they add very little to the main body of text.  Throughout, Ellender asks a lot of questions which she never then proposes an answer to; this practice became annoying quite quickly.  The assumptions which she makes, too, are unnecessary.

I liked the central idea behind this biography, but overall, it did not feel entirely satisfying.  Elisabeth’s Lists really appealed to me as a reader, but some sections felt overworked.  The assumptions and imagination of Ellender feel repetitive very quickly, and the tone is overwhelmingly simpering in places.

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‘Devotion’ by Nell Leyshon ****

I very much admired Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk upon reading it a few years ago, and was eager to read more of her work.  It has taken me a while, but I was able to find a copy of her second novel, 2008’s Devotion, online, and eagerly read it whilst on holiday during the summer.

9780330426428Devotion sounded more traditional in terms of its plot and setting than the aforementioned The Colour of MilkThe Observer has described it as ‘a moving tale of a family falling apart’, and author Catherine O’Flynn writes that it is ‘a compelling study of a family cast adrift; written with subtlety and sensitivity, this deceptively simple tale pulls the reader closer with each page.’  The Times Literary Supplement says that Devotion questions ‘how we understand situations and feelings, and how we read the story of ourselves.’

Rachel, the wife of Andrew and mother of two girls named Grace and Tilly, decides at the outset of the novel that her marriage is no longer working, and asks Andrew to leave.  At this point, she feels as though she is in control, and knows what she is doing, ‘but Rachel is wrong, and her decision has consequences no one could have foreseen.’

The entire story is told from all four of their perspectives, an approach which adds an awful lot of depth.  Tilly, the youngest family member at six years old, is the one who struggles the most with the decision, not really understanding what has happened, or what has caused it.  At the end of her first piece, she says: ‘His books are still here even though Dad isn’t.  I watched him drive off with his car full of insects and suitcases and books, but I don’t know where he went.  Teenage daughter Grace is the one who discovers quite how quickly her mother has moved on after going to deliver a cup of tea to her bedroom one morning: ‘My mother’s dyed red hair was spread over the pillow.  Her skin was tanned and she wore her silver bangles on her arm which was draped over him.  Her arm, over him.  This person I had never seen before.’

Devotion is a highly immersive contemporary novel.  One quickly gets a feel for the characters; the girls particularly have a vividness and vivacity to them, and their voices feel like realistic ones.  Leyshon is incredibly perceptive, and so understanding of emotions; she notes how each character changes as the novel goes on, and how they are forced to change by others.  She demonstrates the ways in which people can protect others, and also how they can put them at their most vulnerable, and their most alone.  The feeling of unease which begins to creep in has been placed so well.

It is tempting to speed through this thoughtful and searching novel to its cataclysmic ending, merely in order to see what happens, but this is a novel to savour.  Leyshon’s writing has a quiet beauty to it, particularly with regard to her descriptions of the natural world.  The highly accomplished Devotion is a book which I likened to Ali Smith’s wonderful The Accidental as I was reading it, and I hope it is one which many readers discover sooner rather than later.

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‘Have the Men Had Enough?’ by Margaret Forster *****

Margaret Forster’s 1989 novel, Have the Men Had Enough?, is an incredibly astute familial saga with an ageing matriarch, Grandma, as its central focus.  At the outset of the novel, Grandma is clearly beginning to lose her focus, believing that her father and brothers will be coming home shortly, and that she needs to cook their dinner.

Have the Men Had Enough? is told from two perspectives, those of Grandma’s daughter-9780099455646in-law, Jenny McKay, and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Hannah.  Of Grandma’s diagnosis, the family are told ‘the long-term memory remains after the short-term has gone.  Grandma cannot remember what she had for dinner an hour ago but she can remember every detail of what she ate on the train journeys to the Highlands in the 1920s.  And it makes her happy.  It does not seem to worry her in the least that she cannot remember her husband’s first name or the colour of his eyes or what he liked and did not like.  He remains in her memory as the subject of a few unflattering anecdotes and, if she had to sum him up, she is content to say he was “a man’s man”.’  Despite these two perspectives, and their sometimes conflicting views, Grandma is always the focus of the narrative; we learn about the other characters largely with regard to their actions toward, and feelings about, her.

It was fascinating, and often saddening, to see such a story unfold from the perspective of a family who have different beliefs as to what would be the best course of action for Grandma’s ongoing care.  Her daughter Bridget, a nurse, lives next door, and is determined to keep caring for her at home for as long as she can manage.  One of her sons, Stuart, keeps away, saying that he does not want the hassle of involvement.  Her son Charlie, Jenny’s husband, funds Grandma’s flat and nursing expenses.  Whilst they live nearby, and Jenny does a lot to help from time to time, both find the process exhausting.  Jenny expresses her fears about caring for Grandma: ‘I want to act now, to protect us all.  And yes, I am afraid, afraid of what it will do to us all if we keep Grandma in our midst to the bitter end.’  Granddaughter Hannah is incredibly observant, continually questioning what would be best for Grandma; at first, she asks, ‘Haven’t the women had enough too?’, before veering back and forth on the idea of Grandma being cared for in their family home, something which her brother Adrian wants dearly.  Hannah is concerned throughout with Grandma’s happiness, and treats her with tenderness and understanding at all times.

Certainly poignant, Have the Men Had Enough? raises a wealth of important questions about ageing, and who will care for us when we reach a stage at which we are no longer able to care for ourselves.  Each of the characters is forced, at points, to reflect upon their opinions of what would be best for themselves and for Grandma.  This thought-provoking reflection makes the novel feel eminently human, and so well balanced; we recognise the discomfort of each of the characters in turn.

Others have written that Have the Men Had Enough? is a difficult book to read, both in terms of prose and content, one which takes time and concentration.  Certainly, Forster’s writing is intelligent, but from the very beginning, I found it immersive.  The story itself was a little draining at times, and one feels terribly for the McKays, in having to make such a difficult decision which will ultimately impact upon and affect them all.  There is a wonderful variation to the novel, given the range of characters, opinions, and voices.

Whilst a devoted fan of Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier, and devouring one of her more recent efforts, The Unknown Bridesmaid, a few years ago, I am baffled as to why it has taken me so long to read more of her work.  Forster is an author who has published a wealth of books which appeal to me, and I will certainly try my best to read more of them over the coming months.  I shall conclude this review with a wonderful quote by Hilary Mantel, which sums up my thoughts on the novel: ‘It is close to life in a way we hardly expect a novel to be, and finally very moving.’

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‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ by Maggie O’Farrell ****

Instructions for a Heatwave is the sixth novel by acclaimed Irish author Maggie O’Farrell. In it, she presents an ‘intimate portrait of a family in crisis’. This crisis is found not only in her characters, but in the setting too, taking part as it does during the London heatwave of July 1976. As one might expect, this heat is like a character throughout the book, its presence stifling: ‘The heat, the heat… It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome; it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs’.

9780755358793The novel opens with Irish housewife Gretta, one of the main characters in the book and without whom the story would not be able to unfold in quite the way it does. She is described as ‘so overweight, so eccentrically dressed, so loud, so uninhibited, so wild-haired, so keen to tell everyone her life story’. At the beginning of the book, headstrong Gretta is baking bread in the fierce heat: ‘She is in her nightdress, hair still wound into curlers… She has made soda bread three times a week for her entire married life. She is not about to let a little thing like a heatwave get in the way of that’. Gretta and her quiet husband Robert Riordan have been married for over thirty years, and are the parents of a son and two daughters – Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife, all of whom are off in the big wide world, living their own lives. The relationship of their parents is a happy one, filled with ‘small acts of kindness that [make] people know they are loved’.

On the pivotal July morning in which the novel opens, London has been in the midst of a heatwave for several days. The citizens are listless and lethargic, and even the smallest acts outside seem like heroic feats. Robert goes out to buy the newspaper at the exact time that he always does, and fails to return. The three children are drafted in from their various locations – Michael Francis in another part of London, Monica in Gloucestershire, and Aoife in New York City – to help find their father. Gretta’s relationship with each of her children is fractured in some way. She dislikes her son’s Englishness, she loathes the space which has opened up between her and her favourite daughter Monica, and she dislikes the way in which Aoife fled to the United States and ‘Never called. Never wrote’.

Each of these characters, too, has a fractured life in some way. Michael’s marriage has hit a definite rough patch; he is a man ‘hurrying home to a wife who will no longer look him in the eye, no longer seek his touch, a wife whose cool indifference has provoked in him such a slow burning, low-level panic that he cannot sleep in his own bed, cannot sit easily in his own house’. Monica is living in a lonely farmhouse with her new husband, whose stepdaughters go out of their way to make life difficult for her: ‘Peter came with a ready-made family, with spare children, she’d hoped she might slot into their lives almost as if they were her own’. Aoife is almost living a hand to mouth existence and is struggling with the fact that, having been held back so much at school, she cannot read.

The author’s descriptions of Michael Francis’ young children particularly are imaginative and perceptive: ‘Hughie is a sprite, a light, reedy being, his too-long hair flying out behind him, diaphanous, an Ariel, a creature of the air, whereas Vita is more of a soil-dwelling animal. A badger, she reminds him [Michael Francis] of, perhaps, or a fox’. Throughout, O’Farrell’s writing style is polished, and her third person narrative voice has been deftly crafted. The short time period in which the novel takes place too adds in its own way to the story.

O’Farrell clearly knows her characters incredibly well. She feeds in lots of details about each of them as the book goes on, and she makes it clear that in Instructions for a Heatwave, nothing is quite what it seems. Secrets lie behind every closed door, and once happy hearts seem as lifeless as the scorched grass in the city. The detritus of family life has built up over time, leaving behind a trail of broken individuals, who use the horrid situation they find themselves in to try and build bridges with one another.

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‘Here I Am’ by Jonathan Safran Foer *****

Since the moment I heard that the god of contemporary authors, Jonathan Safran Foer, was going to be releasing a new novel, the barely-concealed bookworm inside me has been almost continually squealing with excitement.  Whilst markedly different to the original information – Escape from Children’s Hospital was supposed to be released in 2015 – his newest novel, Here I Am, is well worth the wait.

The novel focuses upon a family living in Washington DC.  Jacob and Julia Bloch have been married for sixteen years, and have three sons – Sam, on the cusp of an unwanted Bar Mitzvah, ‘basically eleven’-year-old Max, and five-year-old Benjy.  We also meet members of the Bloch’s extended family – Jacob’s parents, Irv and Deborah, his great-grandfather, Isaac, and several of his Israeli cousins.  The plot revolves around the sudden failure of the Bloch’s marriage, and Sam’s Bar Mitzvah celebration, which is supposed to be filled with pomp and circumstance, and which he is utterly dreading.
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Here I Am is a deep familial jigsaw, which has been incredibly well pieced together.  The dialogue is wonderfully constructed, and there is a very dark humour to it in places, which adds a great balance to the whole.  Above all, the novel feels very believable; the characters are lifelike, and their problems and interactions are very realistic indeed.

Safran Foer’s writing is, as ever, both startling and stunning, and I was reminded immediately as to why I love his work so much.  Throughout, I adored the little details which he made use of – for instance, ‘a redheaded boy who still got chills from so much as thinking about the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows‘.

As always, the Jewish history which Safran Foer has included was both rich and fascinating.  In terms of the plot, Here I Am begins in a manner which feels less historically reliant than Everything is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), but this history builds, and is consequently used in masterful ways.  He is an incredibly thoughtful and understanding author, who sees the importance and consequences of many things which have occurred throughout history; primarily, here, the focus is upon the effects of the Holocaust upon the children and grandchildren of survivors.

I was pulled into Here I Am immediately, and despite its almost-600 page count, I found myself racing through it, quite unable to put it down.  Never once does the story become lost.  I was reminded of Zoe Heller throughout (also a wonderful contemporary author), who examines similar themes in The Believers (2008).  Elements are discussed which can be found in Safran Foer’s earlier efforts; not in a repetitive way, but in a more grown-up, political manner.  Identity, family, and Jewishness are the most prevalent of these.  Here I Am is politically shrewd on a global scale; Julia and Jacob’s marital problems play out against the backdrop of a Middle East fraught with disasters – an earthquake which triggers a cholera epidemic, starving people, and full-blown war.

Here I Am is as strong a novel as his previous works, but it feels like a departure of sorts from them; it is a more grown-up novel, with less experimental writing, and a dose more realism.  Here I Am feels very personal on a number of levels, and the ending is nothing short of heartbreaking.  I loved this well-realised and masterful novel, but I must admit that in no way was it what I was expecting.

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‘Fire’ by Noah Gundersen

A beautiful song introduced to me by Kirsty that I play every day; taken from one of my favourite EPs of all time: ‘Family’.

Lyrics:

“I was born in a lighthouse
where my mother lay
and she won’t wake for no shouting
I was raised by the water
by the crippling waves
and the gulls gave me my singing voice
when the devil came to visit me
he said son I am your enemy
fear me
but it came to my surprise
I was drawn by the fire

I set off west in the springtime

before the flowers had bloomed
and the frost and ice followed me
I met a lot of fine women
with the small of their backs
shining like the crescent moon
when the finest came to visit me
she said son i am your enemy
fear me
but it came as no surprise
I was drawn by the fire

Hey
I am looking for freedom
in the wild eyes of the dancing girls
Hey
I am looking for freedom
in the open arms of America

I was told to find Jesus
in a stained glass church
where the light shines red like blood
and the eyes of his children
were so bitterly burned
that I could not stand to look at them
when he finally came to visit me
he was dressed in the rags of poverty
and it came as no surprise
it came as no surprise

Hey
I am looking for freedom
in the wild eyes of the dancing girls
Hey
I am looking for freedom
in the open arms of America.”