Reviewed by Annabel
Joanna Cannon’s first novel, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was a huge bestseller; I’ve not read it, but I will after having read her second, Three Things About Elsie. TTWG&S was a mystery with young protagonists who turn detective to find out what happened to a neighbour who has gone missing. Three Things is also a mystery, but its protagonists are mature in age – it is set in the Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly.
Our narrator is Florence, eighty-four, who as the novel opens, has fallen in her apartment and is waiting to be noticed as missing. Florence imagines what will happen when she’s found, but she also starts to tell us about her best friend Elsie, whom she met as a girl and they’re reunited in old age at the Home. They spend much time in Florence’s flat, “because Elsie says it has a much better view,” sitting by the window watching what’s happening in the courtyard outside. One day a new resident arrives:
I watched the man. He wore a hat and an overcoat, and he had his back to us, but everyso often he showed the edge of his face, and my mind tried to make sense out of my eyes.
‘How very strange,’ I whispered. […]
I stared into the shadows and the window of number twelve stared back at me. ‘I feel as though someone just walked over my grave.’
Florence thought the new resident was Ronnie Butler, but he died in 1953. A few days later the newcomer is introduced after dinner and this time, Florence is absolutely certain of his identity:
I knew straight away. There aren’t many things remaining in the world that I’m sure of, but this was one of them. He was older, of course. Less definite. More worn. Those things don’t really alter a person at the end of the day, though. It’s just the small print. What really matters is the eyes. The smile. The way someone looks across a room as though they had never left.
[…] I finally knew what real terror was, and there was nothing quite like it. It felt as though it could pull my heart right out of my chest.
Because he was back.
And I had been found.
He is introduced as Gabriel Price, but this time Florence knows better. However, his appearance in the Home upsets her so much, she is put on probation for being able to stay there, but Florence will never retire willingly to Greenbanks… the ultimate indignity in the Cherry Tree residents’ book.
Florence, Elsie and friend Jack set out to investigate Gabriel Price. But as the days go on, more little things happen to upset and confuse Florence still further – things in her flat move, go missing, even multiply. The prospect of being moved to Greenbanks looms ever closer, but Florence is sure she can prove Price/Butler is to blame.
Joanna Cannon’s second novel captures the lives of the aged residents brilliantly with their failing memories and failing bodies. As a doctor and psychiatrist, she has really managed to understand them and get inside their minds. Set free from the confines of the Home on a trip to Whitby though, the sea air seems to invigorate them all – they would have tired me out with their explorations around the town.
The staff are also portrayed sympathetically for the most part, and Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly seems to be well-run with enough for the residents to do, which allows us to focus on Florence’s dilemma. Although secondary, the staff are also well-drawn; from the young foreign girl who cleans, to Handy Simon the Home’s handyman, to the day manager Miss Ambrose, who has a lot to put up with, and answer to Miss Bissell who is in overall charge.
If you’ve read Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry you’ll find a similar blend of sympathetic humour and pathos reading this book. The narrative in both does get darker as we go through, but the well-maintained suspense over the central mystery of Three Things About Elsie was more engaging to me. Joanna Cannon gradually weaves in Florence’s reminiscences about what happened back in 1953 too. This all leads to a moving finale where I did shed a tear or two. A triumphant second novel which I loved, and I’m sure you will too.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and blogs here.
Joanna Cannon, Three Things About Elsie (Borough Press, 2018) ISBN: 978-0008196912, Hardback, 464 pages.
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