And if, in your eighties, that long forgotten bully from your youth turns up as resident at your care home……..
Joanna Cannon’s first novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, with its child narrator, had enchanted me. Cannon showed a quirky, wonderful imagination, a linguistic skill and the ability to turn on a dime the balance between dark humour and an ache to the heartstrings which reminded me a lot of early Kate Atkinson (Behind the Scenes At The Museum)
So I was eager to read her second novel, kindly provided as an ARC from the publishers, via Net Galley
And delighted that this second novel exceeded my expectations, raised so high by her first novel.
Three Things About Elsie has a narrator, and a setting, at the other end of a life span. Florence, awkward in some way, full of self-doubt, intelligent, kind, but lacking the skills of received social finesse, is 84. She is teetering on the edge of dementia, not always sure of her memories, and is currently, just, living in a flatlet in Cherry Tree, sheltered accommodation. Almost in residential care – socialisation is certainly expected by the staff, which still often means parking oneself, jaw agape, in front of the telly. Florence though is ‘on probation’ – her dislike of pabulum means she prefers the company of fellow residents Elsie and Jack to the big group activities. Elsie is her lifelong good friend, and Florence’s (please, do not call her Flo without permission) happiest memories are of the warmth shown her as a child, welcomed into Elsie’s family . Jack is a sociable widower with a lot of real charm and good heart All three have, as is inevitable, happier memories to protect from their past, younger lives. Florence is forgetting a lot of hers, though Elsie can help her to remember. In fact, Elsie and Jack keep her safe from the fearful place which awaits – removal to Greenbank (which was neither green, nor set on a bank) , the next stage for the elderly, a clear slow sliding into dying
As Florence eloquently notes, on a visit to someone who has already made that journey, Greenbank is not a place of comfort to contemplate
As we’d walked through Greenbank, the clouds had hurried across a September sky, exchanging the rain for a watery sunlight. The harsh lines, the sharp edges of a windowsill, the white stare of a pictureless wall, were all diluted with a butterscotch kindness. On the bedside table were a box of tissues and a beaker of water. The room had an echo.
The woman said ‘She has everything she needs,’ before all of us were even inside.
I looked up at the ceiling and it looked back at me with a magnolia indifference
As if the worries about the prospects of Greenbank being dangled, threatened, if Florence doesn’t get more normal and compliant are not enough, a long avoided memory from the past has arrived to haunt her. Florence has a past, of course, as everyone does, but, in this case, the past involves a bullying, unpleasant man from her youth. And this one has now turned up, a deceptive slippery charmer, skillful at hiding his true nature, as the new resident in Florence’s ‘shelter’
Everyone’s life has a secret, something they never talk about. 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?
Florence, Elsie and Jack have to embark on a quest to help Florence out of dragging that suitcase
Perhaps the closing words of my chapter will be spoken in a room filled with beige and forgetfulness, and no one was ever meant to hear them
Told in that now usual literary trope, the dual time frame, in this novel, the device is brilliantly used, twisting the reader into the present moment, with a ticking clock, and a patchwork of scenes from the past, memories which are not sequential, but arising from the deeps, as memory does, unbidden, sometimes also in the middle of recounted events from the most recent past, maybe just days ago, at Cherry Tree
Cannon skilfully twines joy, humour, the painful tragedies of small lives, a cast of wonderfully, normally quirky individuals and a page turning what will happen. And she really was making me laugh, making me weep, making my heart tenderly suffer, causing my pulse to race, almost all at once. And, oh glory, I never felt contrived or manipulated.
A wonderful, painful, funny, satisfying read. What on earth can she do for book number 3? She has raised my expectations very very high indeed
Though publication is in January in the UK, at the time of writing and scheduling this review, it looks as if a USA publication won’t be until the summer of 2018 – wood book, nothing showing on ereader. Bad luck, Statesiders. Maybe you could schedule a quick trip to the UK from mid January
Finally – the cover delights me, for reasons I won’t spell out, but an attentive reader will, as some point, smile, I think