I rather enjoy making lists and having the satisfaction of ticking off the easier tasks. This biography is a beautifully written account of the lists that an ambassador’s daughter, Elisabeth, who later became a British diplomat’s wife, compiled during many postings at home and overseas. As her mother faces an untimely death, the writer, Lulah Ellender, grows ever closer to that grandmother whom she never met. She studies the copious handwritten lists contained in her grandmother’s precious notebooks, researches and meditates on her full and busy life in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Every time Elisabeth faced the setting up of yet another new home or had to entertain guests and dignitaries at social events, she listed the items needed. The reader gains a very clear insight into the demands of a job served by both husband and wife in places as far apart as China and Beirut, Madrid and Paris. We are shown life as a diplomat during WW2 in Franco’s Spain and quite a different life in Rio de Janeiro.
Lulah Ellender writes with great sensitivity, showing tremendous empathy for her grandmother’s situation and personality. That grandmother spent much time alone as a child with her own parents posted overseas. Lists seemed to provide a stability then and until her death in late middle age. The biography is also a wise reflection on the fragility of life and the power of love and connection across the generations. Pasternak’s sentiments: ‘You have always been in others and you will remain in others’ leave the writer and reader sustained. Having transcribed, during lockdown, over 300 of my own family letters written between 1830 and 1860, I recognise how closely connected one can become with relations long gone. That is what Ellender captures for me in A Life Between the Lines.
Reviewed by a library member