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“I’m almost sure that yours was the first hand I ever held.” Eighty-four-year-old Florence Claybourne’s childhood friend Elsie accompanies Florence through her life at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly, offering wisdom and support when both are in short supply. What would Florence be without Elsie? It’s unthinkable. She is as close as the air Florence breathes, or closer; abiding when all else falls away. Even during Florence’s solitary and catastrophic fall, which opens and closes the novel, the presence of Elsie is revealed.
Cannon’s bestselling debut, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, centred on a missing woman. In Cannon’s world, not only people but minds and memories threaten to go missing, and if memory is lost, so is the self. Three Things About Elsie belongs to a tradition of fiction set in old people’s homes or supported accommodation. As in Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up, Deborah Moggach’s These Foolish Things and Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life, an elderly group inhabits an enclosed community on a perilous edge, insecurely poised between vitality and death, comedy and pathos. Like M Scott Peck’s A Bed by the Window, Cannon’s second novel involves a mystery plot of crime and redemption. And like Peck, Cannon is a practising doctor, and knows what she is talking about.
When a “new chap” appears at Cherry Tree, Florence is convinced she recognises him. He calls himself Gabriel Price, but surely it’s Ronnie Butler, a very nasty piece of work, who died in 1953. Or did he? How confused is Florence? Is she hallucinating? The reappearance of this figure from her deep past triggers a sequence of disturbing memories and jeopardises her wellbeing. “He’s been inside my flat … he has moved things around.” The staff take a dim view of Florence’s claims and shouting, and Cannon portrays with sympathetic understanding her state of mind when she is put “on probation”: she has one month to prove she isn’t losing her marbles. The running theme here is the usurpation and bureaucratisation of the lives of the old by well-meaning institutions.
I have reservations about the construction of this novel: it can be clunky, slow-paced, sententious and sentimental. Cannon divides the narration between Florence, Miss Ambrose the administrator and the handyman “Handy Simon”, the latter two stereotypical characters conveying the book’s moral messages. The crime mystery is less interesting and compelling than the mystery of Florence’s and Elsie’s union, which is beautifully handled. The function of Ronnie Butler is solely to be villainous. In defiance of the authorities, feisty Florence, aided by her aged comrade, Jack, becomes a sleuth and private eye, interviewing witnesses from long ago to disinter secrets germane to her life. Successive small revelations of repressed memory scaffold the plot.
Florence’s character is lovely: sweet, sharp and argumentative, she brims with quips and retorts. When someone wonders if the administrator has been committing fraud, she responds: “Miss Ambrose doesn’t look the type, does she? … She buys all her clothes from Marks & Spencer.” Comedy keeps the tone light. Only when Cannon is discussing the nursing home with which Florence is threatened does the tone savagely darken. Cherry Tree is a halfway house in which Florence can live a version of normal life, in a flat of her own. Beyond it lies Greenbank, a sort of mortuary for the living. “Within each room was a small piece of torment. Eyes were glazed with vacancy. Mouths gaped.” Some bedsheets are “angry, twisted”, but those residents who have “run out of arguing” lie defeated on perfectly made beds. Once you lose your anger and repartee, you are done for. Greenbank is a portal to the grave. Nobody wants to “be Greenbanked”. Would you? Shall I, when my time comes?
Elsie remains an island of sanity, guardian of memory, deathless companion who speaks for the possibility of reconciliation with the world as it is and the past one has lived. The first thing about Elsie is that “she’s my best friend”; the second that “she always knows what to say to make me feel better”. What is the “third thing about Elsie” advertised by the title? The reader intuits the answer, which, when it surfaces in the final chapter, is powerful and profound.
• Stevie Davies’s Equivocator is published by Parthian. Three Things About Elsie is published by Borough. To order a copy for £12.74 (RRP £14.99) go to bookshop.hafta-ichi.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon review – crime, comedy and old-age confusion | Fiction