Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon
Opening sentence: “‘How did you fall, Flo?’ they’ll ask when they find me.”
There’s nothing like an unreliable narrator to get me hooked on a story, and Florence certainly is that. Although not intentionally so. She is 84-years-old, lives in Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly and her memory is not what it used to be. So, when she says a new resident at the Home – Gabriel Price – is not a harmless old man, but a dangerous man she once knew – and thought had died – in her youth, should we believe her? Convinced he has come looking for her, Florence and her friends, Elsie and Jack, decide to take matters into their own hands and find out who this man is once and for all. The arrival of Gabriel triggers a lot of memories for Florence, including a secret she would rather was kept hidden.
As well as effortlessly weaving together several plot threads, Three Things About Elsie delicately yet succinctly explores some wider themes such as the way elderly dementia patients are viewed and treated and how everyone has an impact on the lives of those around them, even if it is not obvious, ‘Don’t you think,’ I said, ‘we can change everything, just with the small decisions we make?’
The title touchingly refers to a method Florence uses to try and remember (‘Miss Ambrose says everything is up there, I just have to find a way of getting it out’), she tries to think of three things about the person / event she is searching her mind for, to trigger the memories. Florence is a very sympathetic portrayal of an elderly woman with dementia, and some of the language used to describe her thought process is quite beautiful: ‘Sometimes, you feel a memory before you see it. Even though your eyes can’t quite find it, you can smell it and taste it, and hear it shouting to you from the back of your mind.’
A majority of the story is told by Florence, but there are also chapters by Miss Ambrose and Handy Simon, who both work at the Home – I didn’t love these chapters. They were a touch too schmaltzy and I didn’t feel invested in their story arcs. I would rather have just carried on with Florence’s tale as she is truly a character you take to your heart. I thought she had echoes of an older Eleanor Oliphant about her, in both her abrupt yet (unintentionally) funny mannerisms and the theme of the importance of kindness, ‘It’s the tiny act of goodness that opens a door somewhere and lets all the misery escape.’
I found Joanna Cannon’s writing style engrossing and clever, there were some touchingly funny moments and not one, but two instances towards the end of the book that I was not expecting to happen. Just when I thought it had settled into a cosy story, Cannon threw a curve-ball to peak my interest. This is one of those books that the more I think about it, the more I appreciate all the subtle layers running throughout and, on reflection, as I write this a few days after reading, I really enjoyed the balance it struck between having an overall heartwarming feel and the spiky elements of grit and drama.
Oh, and it has quite the delectable cover, doesn’t it? (Yes, Battenberg cake does feature in the story.)