No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, March 12, 2006

#17: Call Me Elizabeth -- Dawn Annandale

Call Me Elizabeth is the story of a woman who, burdened with debt (and with a number of emotional issues) decides to resort to prostitution to preserve her comfortable family life and pay school fees for her six children. Problems dealt with -- the financial ones, at least -- she calls a halt to her 'suspender years', making sure she has enough money in the bank to tide her over for a few months until she's worked out what to do next. (As far as I can tell from her website, she's now making a career out of speaking and writing about her experiences.)

As titillating soft porn goes, this isn't even on the starting line: there is barely a mention of what 'Elizabeth' actually does. Most of the book consists of anecdotes about her driver (happy to take her to the all-night Tesco's between jobs) and her pimp ("you do know you have to fuck them, darling?"), and glimpses of domestic life, interspersed with passages in which she rationalises her choices. Despite the description on the back cover of 'a bright, witty and highly-educated woman', 'Elizabeth' doesn't come across as particularly intelligent. She seems overwhelmingly normal: reads John Grisham, works as a legal secretary, flirts with a fellow-commuter. She buys her underwear in Marks and Spencer. She makes mistakes.

It never seems to occur to her that people might be suspicious of her lifestyle. At one point her former mother-in-law sets a private detective onto her; the new man in her life, to whom she's consistently lied about her employment, finds out where all the money comes from; someone checks up on her via her National Insurance number. And yet she leaves notebooks and bank statements lying around in her kitchen.

She is lucky: amongst her first few clients are a doctor (who opens her eyes to the health risks she faces) and a security consultant (who gives her some tips about protection and self-defence). Despite being badly in debt, she has funds available to buy new shoes, new underwear, cab rides from the West End to the leafy suburbs of Kent. (It says on the back cover that her children are 'going without the bare essentials', but this only seems to be true if you count shop-bought fairy cakes, and a puppy.) There's a certain lack of humour to her account, but perhaps that's to be expected. And there is never any hint that she enjoys her work.

Everyone's luck runs out sometimes. Some bad things happen to 'Elizabeth'. Whether it's her background, her determination or some inner resilience, she copes with them very well. Too well, perhaps: I can't help wondering if some of those bad nights come back to haunt her now. But it's only when she falls asleep at the wheel, driving home at 6am one morning, that she finally decides to stop immediately.

It's an indictment of the building societies and banks with which she held accounts that things were allowed to get so very bad: there's no mention of their contacting her to discuss matters, and she doesn't seek help from any of the agencies that exist to help those in debt.

The book isn't especially lyrical or well-written but it's a compelling read. I'm not sure I'd like 'Elizabeth' in real life, but there's something admirable in her determination, whether or not you believe that prostitution is morally and ethically wrong under any circumstance.


  1. Anonymous1:19 pm

    Thanks for your review, Although I think your review is on the whole pretty spot on there are one or two areas I disagree with you.

    She buys new shoes and underwear on max'd out credit as a direct need for her "new Job". When people are in situations where money is in seriously short supply you have to in the hope that it will come good.

    second, she buys the dog after she has worked for a bit and is getting straight.

    You don't mention the fact that she insists that her children go to public school. If she just dropped that and sent her children to state schools like the majority of the rest of us her bills would have most likly vanished in a few months.

    But all in all a page turner if not one that will win hearts and minds or awards.

  2. Re Rupert's comment: My point isn't that she spends the money (the credit) on items she needs -- it's that she has the available credit in the first place, because she has a history of solvency. That option isn't always available.

    With hindsight, possibly both problem and solution are to do with having had and lost a (financially) comfortable lifestyle. I don't think 'Elizabeth' is a typical prostitute.