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 predicament 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.