Posts Tagged ‘Joanna cannon’


Joanna Cannon’s debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was a big success and a huge hit with readers. Her second much anticipated novel Three Things about Elsie is, I am sure, about to be every bit as popular. The physical thing is in itself a talking point – with the hardback edition looking like a wonderous slab of Battenberg cake – cue rumbling tums and cake craving. Where The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was a novel of childhood, the world and its complexities seen from a childhood perspective. Three things about Elsie is a novel of old age, the world viewed through the vulnerability of old age and dementia. I loved this book, I couldn’t read it fast enough, but it was a reading experience tinged slightly with sadness – probably because I loved the characters so much – and I was left with a rather depressing view of some aspects of old age. I swore to myself – and my family – that whatever happens to me in the next thirty years or so, I will not be going to any kind of old people prison. I couldn’t help but be reminded how so often elderly people are every bit as powerless as children.

“There are three things you should know about Elsie.
The first thing is that she’s my best friend.
The second is that she always knows what to say to make me feel better.
And the third thing… might take a little bit more explaining.”

Florence is in her eighties, living in sheltered accommodation called Cherry Tree, though there aren’t any Cherry Trees. It’s a confusing world sometimes. Trying to remember the names of the young women who work there – they wear the same colour uniforms and all start to look the same. Elsie is Florence’s best friend, they have been friends since they were girls at the factory, and luckily for Florence, Elsie is at Cherry Tree too, and tries to keep Florence on the straight and narrow. Elsie always knows how to make Florence feel better.

“It was called sheltered accommodation, but I’d never quite been able to work out what we were being sheltered from. The world was still out there. It crept in through the newspapers and the television. It slid between the cracks of other people’s conversation and sang out from mobile telephones. We were the ones hidden away, collected up and ushered out of sight, and I often wondered if it was actually the world that was being sheltered from us.”

Florence has fallen, and as she lies on the floor in her flat, gazing at the collection of things lying underneath the sideboard she reflects on her life, the recent past at Cherry Tree and the time when she and Elsie were girls. The past and present had started to merge recently when a newcomer arrived at Cherry Tree. The story goes back and forth between the hours Florence spends lying on the floor – and the events of the months prior to her fall, and the shadows from sixty years before that threatened to overwhelm her again .

Florence is in the early stages of dementia; her memory keeps letting her down and she is finding it difficult to understand everything around her. Sometimes, Florence speaks a little too loudly, her behaviour has started to appear erratic to some of the staff. Miss Ambrose – who supervises the day to day running of Cherry Tree for Mrs Bissell the manager – has told Florence, that she is on probation. Florence knows what that means, she is in danger of being shipped off to Greenbank – and she knows she really doesn’t want to go there. Florence is terrified of being made to go away, she needs Elsie to help her.

When a new resident arrives, Florence recognises him, he looks like a man, she and Elsie knew at the factory sixty years ago – he wasn’t a very nice man. Florence remembers the man was called Ronnie Butler, and he drowned in 1953, he couldn’t possibly be the new resident at Cherry Tree, could he? This man is called Gabriel Price, but he has a scar at the corner of his mouth, just where Ronnie had one, a scar that brings back lots of frightening memories of the past for Florence. There is one person she can talk to about it, one other person who knew Ronnie, who shares the same past and the same memories as Florence. Florence asks Elsie to help her keep an eye on Gabriel Price or whoever he is. Another resident Jack, gets drawn in, he believes Florence’s tales. Everyone else is charmed by the smooth talking, helpful Gabriel Price – but Florence is convinced that he has been letting himself into her flat and moving things, filling the cupboards with Battenberg cake – making it look like she is losing the plot – ensuring that she will get sent to Greenbank.

Through Florence’s eyes Miss Ambrose is a thoughtless woman who doesn’t listen, and just wants rid of Florence. However, when we see things through Miss Ambrose’s eyes, we see a woman who is unsure of the career path she is on, who is exhausted, trying to do her best, sometimes over whelmed by the responsibility and who sees Florence as a difficult old woman. A woman who doesn’t want to socialise, who is confused, buys twenty odd Battenberg cakes, and suddenly insists on having her locks changed. Handyman Simon is a sweetheart, not always appreciated by Miss Ambrose – he watches what goes on at Cherry Tree and worries about Florence – who is looking sad. One of the carers Cheryl, has a tattoo of Alice; her child’s name on her wrist – no one but Florence ever speaks to her about Alice – Cheryl likes Florence.

“..but love paper-aeroplanes where it pleases. I have found that it settles in the most unlikely of places, and once it has, you’re left with the burden of where it has landed for the rest of your life.”

Florence, Elsie and Jack set about unravelling the mystery of Gabriel Price. Memories of the past resurface, and events not spoken of for a long time are given clarity – as secrets are revealed.

To say very much more about this novel would probably be to spoil it, it is a deeply poignant story – with characters that a reader can’t help but instantly connect with. I worried about Florence all the time I was reading – I had to fly through the book, breathlessly gulping it down, until all was revealed.


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