Joanna Cannon’s 2016 debut novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, was that rare literary phenomenon: a bestseller, swiftly optioned for TV and spawning a devoted readership. But beyond that, it was to lead a new publishing trend, latterly described as “uplit”: fiction in which empathy and kindness drive the narrative and where protagonists exist on the periphery of society, at best overlooked and at worst rejected entirely.
Cannon is now back with her second novel, which similarly explores the inner lives of society’s outsiders. Eighty-four-year-old Florence Claybourne is a resident at the Cherry Tree home for the elderly and is beset by both nostalgia and dementia: “My mind started to wander. It can’t help itself. It very often goes for a walk without me, and before I’ve realised what’s going on, it’s miles away.” She has fallen over in her room and as she lays on the floor waiting for someone to find her, she remembers the events of the past month: the arrival of a man at the home whom she is convinced is someone from her past, albeit someone who supposedly died many years before. But no one in the home believes her – neither staff nor fellow residents – bar Florence’s lifelong friend, Elsie, so Florence sets out to unravel her past and prove them wrong.
Two of the “three things about Elsie” are revealed in the book’s synopsis and are teased out tenderly through Florence’s recollection of their friendship. The third is not disclosed until almost the end of the novel, although astute readers will probably have guessed it much sooner. In most novels, pre-empting a central plot twist spoils the reading experience, but here it is Cannon’s meticulously crafted characters who drive the story.
Cannon’s previous career as an NHS psychiatrist infuses her writing. She treats her characters with immense care and compassion, inviting the reader not merely to be interested in them but to show them concern and empathy: “She always looked like someone who hadn’t had quite enough sleep, but had put on another coat of lipstick and enthusiasm, in an effort to make sure the rest of the world didn’t ever find her out.”
Throughout Cannon’s writing, there is an intrinsic understanding of the quiet pain that accompanies loneliness: “There is a special kind of silence when you live alone. It hangs around, waiting for you to find it. You try to cover it up with all sorts of other noises, but it’s always there, at the end of everything else, expecting you.”
In The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, Cannon wrote evocatively about the remarkable heatwave of 1976 and the curtain-twitching nosiness that comes with living in a semi-anonymous community. Here, she sympathetically captures the claustrophobia and enforced cheeriness of old people’s homes: “Between us, we would work out how many days it was until Christmas, and we would say how quickly the time passes, and saying how quickly the time passes would help to pass the time a little more.”
In Three Things About Elsie, Cannon reaffirms her interest in the private tragedies of quotidian lives: “Elsie’s father left for the war and returned as a telegram on the mantelpiece.” Compassionate, thoughtful and tender, it is a novel exploring the pain of nostalgia and personal truths so painful we hide them even from ourselves. As Florence says at one point: “Everyone has words they keep to themselves. It’s what you do with your secret that really matters. Do you drag it behind you forever, like a difficult suitcase, or do you find someone to tell?”
• Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon is published by Harper Collins (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to guardianbookshop.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