Book Review: Three Things About Elsie

Three Things About Elsie, by Joanna Cannon, is:

  • a tale of a friendship;
  • a murder mystery;
  • a sympathetic study of ageing.

Its protagonist is Florence, an octogenarian living in Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. When the story opens she is lying on the floor of her sheltered accommodation having suffered a fall. As she waits to be found she considers events from the previous month during which a figure from her past returned, triggering memories that she struggled to make sense of.

Memories are a problem for Florence but she receives help from her best friend, Elsie. Florence and Elsie met on a bus when they were children. Later they worked in the same factory and would go dancing together on a Saturday night. This is where they were, sixty years ago, the night Ronnie Butler drowned. Now Ronnie has reappeared, he is Cherry Tree Home’s newest resident. He is introduced by staff as Gabriel Price.

Florence is on probation at the home. Her muddled recollections, shouting and frequent agitation have led the manager, Miss Ambrose, to suggest she may be better off at Greenbank. Florence knows all about Greenbank, that it is a place old people go to fade into themselves and then die. She wants to stay where she is but Miss Ambrose tells her she has lost the ability to judge what is for the best. Florence is frustrated as she struggles to find the right words when she needs them. Her jagged attempts to voice her concerns are routinely dismissed.

Elsie listens to Florence. She helps her friend to sort through her memories when they become jumbled. They tell their friend Jack all about Ronnie and try to piece together how he can possibly be at Cherry Tree when he was buried all those years ago.

Florence has noticed that items in her flat are being moved but the uniformed staff tasked with taking care of residents are familiar with her habit of misplacing things. She becomes scared that Ronnie has gained access to her private rooms and, after all this time, wishes her harm. He knows that she knows what he did to Elsie’s sister before he drowned.

With Elsie’s help Florence gradually retrieves the jigsaw pieces of her past and puts them together. Jack suggests they talk to others who knew Ronnie back in the day. These elderly mystery solvers go in search of triggers that will unlock the final answers still somewhere inside Florence’s head.

A holiday in Whitby, a walk along the beach and a missing person all come together as Florence gradually remembers. Yet even when the picture is finally clear in her mind she must somehow find words to explain, words that Miss Ambrose will hear.

The writing is rich in imagery with the reader experiencing the difficulties of being taken seriously when senescence affects daily behaviour. The point of view switches between Florence and various staff members enabling the reasons residents are treated as they are to be understood.

There are poignant snapshots throughout the tale such as a skip filled with the contents of a vacated room at Cherry Tree, valued photographs and mementoes now carelessly cast away. Florence reflects on her life and wonders if she did anything at all that made a difference or will be remembered. Her┬ápredicament is heart-rending but the depiction of senility along with its moments of lucidity are tenderly conveyed, as is Florence’s care of and need for Elsie.

I found the sadness and frustrations vexing to read in places, the richness of certain expressions capturing the essence at times Battenberg sweet. What comes across clearly is the speed at which life passes, and the many facets of even an ordinary life lived.

Florence lying on the floor of her room is confident she will be found and treated with kindness, a kindness she has shown to others throughout her long life. Those who read this book will likely come away more willing to grant even the difficult Florence’s of this world such simple respect. For that, and the slice of a life captured between the pages, this is a story worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Borough Press.

Book Review: Dear Beneficiary

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Dear Beneficiary, by Janet Kelly, is a modern farce about a woman of a certain age. The protagonist, Cynthia, had been ‘diligently married’ for forty years and is now rather enjoying widowhood. A brief affair with a much younger Nigerian man showed her that sex could be enjoyed, a revelation to this very proper housewife from Surrey. Although she was saddened when he had to return to his home country it was also something of a relief as keeping him a secret from her family had been tricky at times, once involving several hours spent in a wardrobe.

She decided that to engage in modern life she should get on line so turned to her grandson for help. Excited by ‘the prospect of his certainly solvent if not well-off relative being encouraged to buy the latest technology’ she soon found herself the owner of a top of the range PC and smart phone, neither of which she could operate.

Almost immediately she is taken in by a Nigerian 419 scam which empties her bank account. Convinced that the money has been used legitimately by her former lover she ignores her bank manager’s attempts to help and decides to travel to Lagos to sort the matter out for herself, with unfortunate results.

The strength of this story lies in the author’s ability to show Cynthia’s many sides.

In some ways she is the foolish old woman that her family see her as with her inability to drive safely or operate technology but a stubborn refusal to recognise her limitations. She understands how she is seen by her children so often chooses not to tell them what is happening in her life.

She is vain and arrogant, expressing disdain for those her own age with their hobbies and sagging bodies. She is happy to believe her hairdresser when she exclaims at how young Cynthia looks, feeling smug about her skincare routine and regular swims. She preens herself and seeks compliments, feeling annoyed when others regard her as old.

Despite her aging, middle class conceits Cynthia is still an individual and wishes to make use of her remaining years. Having escaped the dullness of her married life and discovered that sex can be enjoyed she wishes to seek out lovers, accepting advances as the starving may accept food.

Cynthia is determined not to grow old without a fight and this determination comes to the fore when, in the direst of circumstances, she is required to plan a daring escape. Convinced of her own superiority she is surprised to discover that her companion, who she regards as brash and vulgar, has her own hidden strengths. Together they form an unlikely alliance.

The characterisations in this book are amusing with enough wit and wisdom to entertain. Ludicrous though some of the situations seem (as they should in a farce) I suspect that readers may be inspired to consider their aging relatives and friends anew.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Beauty

uglyduck

I have a very beautiful friend. She has it all: small frame; slim, shapely body; fabulous poise and posture; long, straight, jet black hair; smooth skin; good teeth; an open, friendly smile; brown eyes you could drown in. She is married with a kid and a part time job, she and her handsome husband own their own home. She also suffers from severe depression.

People ask her all the time, ‘How can you be depressed when you look so gorgeous, when you have so much?’ Society appears to equate beauty to happiness, with a lack of understanding that more may be required. On the other side of the same coin, when a person has an obvious disfigurement it is assumed that they deserve to be pitied.

When I read of a person suffering facial burn wounds commentators will look on the outcome differently depending on gender and age. If it happens to a young girl it is considered a tragedy that she has ‘lost her looks’. There is little discussion about the potential infections or future pain that a serious burn wound can cause. The discussion centres around the potential for cosmetic surgery, how she will feel when she looks in a mirror, how society will treat her.

None of this is new of course. We notice beauty and are initially drawn to a person based on outward perception, although this view is quickly coloured by actions and conversation. Still though, health appears to be undervalued except by those whose quality of life is adversely affected by a condition. When the illness is unseen there is a tendency to assume that the sufferer could get over it if they really tried.

In recent years there has been more open discussion about mental illness, yet still it is assumed that the young and beautiful have no cause, no right to feel down. Outsiders, sometimes even supposed friends, will look at a person and judge if they have an acceptable reason to feel the way they do. Years of suffering and self hatred are swept aside as well meaning passers by suggest losing weight, getting out more, a change in attitude as a cure. Become a different person and all will be well, just do it.

When the sufferer already looks perfect there is incomprehension that they could want more than they already have, as if beauty were the pinnacle of achievement. Could this be why, as an older woman, I hear certain peers talking with concern about losing their looks?

There are many older people who look fabulous, but even highlighting this is to give credence to the idea that beauty is so important. At what cost has this look been achieved, how does the person feel, what else have they achieved? When we read of mental health issues amongst the rich and famous does it help us to empathise if we can see something about them that we consider could be improved?

Nobody chooses to suffer a mental illness, and there is no treatment that can yet cure it. The best that can be hoped for is a strategy for management, improvement to allow for survival.

There is no doubt that achieving a healthy weight can improve physical health and thereby quality of life. An attractive haircut or a flattering outfit can give a temporary lift. What an ill person needs though is not a demand to change, but support and acceptance for where they are now, however they happen to look. Well people would benefit from that too.

 

 

 

 

The cost of a night out is going up

Yesterday was my wedding anniversary. My husband and I celebrated by going out for a lovely meal at a local restaurant. The children were fed at home and then left to sort out their busy evenings for themselves. I felt a bit guilty about this; so much of my life has been spent trying to be the best parent that I can. Sometimes though, we just have to take our adult time and make the kids cope. It is important for them to understand that, although we are happy to support them, we too have lives to lead.

I had a lovely evening and came home feeling happy and relaxed, much later than I would normally stay out, especially on a week night. Today I am paying the price for that. It would seem that, as I get older, the cost of a night out is going up. I barely know what to do with myself today I am so tired; it feels as though my very bones ache. It is hard to believe that I could once stay out half the night and still bounce into work the next day. I know that there are plenty of people my age and older who can still party the night away and get by. Whatever the reason, I am not one of them.

As I lie here trying to rest and recuperate, I am thinking back to those younger days when a night out such as I enjoyed last night would have seemed tame. My husband and I were never wild, party animals, but we enjoyed our share of socialising and had a good group of friends. Many of these lovely people came to our wedding, and we still keep in touch. Our big day was planned as a chance to celebrate with those we enjoyed spending time with; we didn’t see the need to provide our large, extended families, who we rarely saw and many of whom we would barely recognise, with a get together. Selfishly perhaps, we did it the way we wanted.

After the excitement of our engagement had abated and we started discussing the next step, it was decided that we could do the whole white wedding in a church thing, but not necessarily follow too many of the other traditions. I saw no need to wait too long to do the deed; not for us a lengthy engagement of several years. I wanted a chance of decent weather which ruled out the approaching winter, but I didn’t want to be a June bride; too twee for me. We opted for May 1st as we liked the links to summer festivals and workers rights. It also fell on a Friday in the year we got married which made booking venues and services a whole lot easier.

I liked the idea of dressing up in a white wedding dress, but was reluctant to pay a large amount of money for something that I would wear once. Luckily for me, my sister-in-law still had her wedding dress, it fitted me and she was willing to let me wear it. She was my bridesmaid and wore a dress worn by one of her own bridesmaids. Friends leant me a veil, head dress and a hooped underskirt so I just had to buy shoes which I hoped I would be able to wear again. My husband bought a good suit as this seemed a more worthwhile investment; he still has it all these years later.

My talented parents-in-law made the wedding cake and the bouquets. I bought the invitations at a local stationers and hand wrote them. A friend recorded the event on video although we did use a professional photographer for the stills. We also hired one wedding car with my brother-in-law decorating his black car with ribbons to provide a second. I did my own hair and make up. All of these little details provided the setting but did not seem hugely important. What was important was that we were getting married!

We wanted a fairly small ‘do’ so limited invitations to close family and friends. In the end we provided a sit down meal at a good hotel for about forty guests. It was a lovely day, made all the more so I think because I was not worrying about everything being just right. The whole thing was put together with so much help from others and nothing had to particularly match. Looking back, the only thing that I would change would be to rein in the photographer who took too long getting his shots. It is hard enough finding time at a wedding to talk to all the people who make the effort to attend without having to spend what felt like hours posing in organised groups. I would have preferred more informality.

As each anniversary has gone by, my husband and I have made the effort to celebrate. Some years we have gone away for a night, on other years we have marked the occasion with a simple take away meal at home. In many ways my husband is more romantic than me and will make more of an effort to ensure that the occasion is special. It was he who insisted that we go out last night and I am glad that he did, even if I am suffering for it today.

Life can have as many special occasions as we choose to celebrate. I may need longer to recover from a night out than I once did, but if I lived too carefully then I would not be generating more happy memories to look back on. Agreeing to marry my husband was the best decision that I ever made and our wedding, however selfishly planned, was as happy an occasion as I could wish for. As each anniversary passes I am reminded of how lucky I am that he continues to put up with me. The cost of a night out with him may be going up, but it is still a price that is well worth paying.

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