Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

review by Maryom

84 year old Florence Claybourne has fallen, and is lying on the floor of her sheltered accommodation flat until someone comes to rescue her. While she waits, she checks out the rubbish accumulated under the sofa, imagines who her rescuer will be and how they'll react, and reminisces about her lifelong friendship with Elsie. There are three special things about Elsie. The first two are simple - that she's Florence's best friend, and that she always knows the right things to say to make Florence feel better - the third is harder to explain. As Florence's mind drifts back over the years we begin to see the important part Elsie has played in her life, but Florence's memories are troubled by a new arrival at the Cherry Tree sheltered housing. He's calling himself Gabriel Price, but Florence believes he's someone she once knew long ago, under a different name. Is her memory playing up, or has Ronnie Butler come back (possibly from the dead) to in some way get his revenge?

Taken at its simplest, Three Things About Elsie is a gentle mystery story revolving around incidents from the characters' youth. Who is the mysterious Gabriel/Ronnie? What happened back in the 50s to make Florence so afraid of him? Of course, if Florence's memory were clearer, we'd know the answers in a second. As it is, the reader has to follow her meanderings and side-tracking as the puzzle pieces gradually slot together one by one.

More importantly, it's a sympathetic look at a section of society that's easily written off as boring and irrelevant - the elderly. In Greenbank, the care home to which Cherry Tree's residents are sent as they become less self-reliant, the photos on the walls remind the staff of WHO their patients once were. Now they may be senile, bedridden, barely distinguishable from each other, but once they too were young, had hopes and dreams, fell in love, raised families, enjoyed dancing or cricket or reading - basically were individuals. Through Florence's eyes we see what it's like to be dismissed as a forgetful old woman, while she still feels like her younger self.

And the 'third thing' about Elsie? Well, that's something to make your own mind up about.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (The Borough Press)
Genre - Adult fiction

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