I loved Joanna Cannon’s debut novel, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, and I was delighted to meet her in 2018 at a local Waterstones event where I picked up a copy of her second novel, Three Things About Elsie. We discussed how annoying it is to be called Joanne when your name is Joanna – something I experienced a lot of as a child, and something that only those called Joanna will understand, I think!
There are three things you should know about Elsie.
The first thing is that she’s my best friend.
The second thing is that she always knows what to say to make me feel better.
And the third thing… might take a little bit more explaining.
84-year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be rescued, she considers the charming new resident who looks exactly like a man she once knew – a man who died sixty years ago. His arrival has stirred distant memories she and Elsie thought they’d laid to rest. Lying prone in the front room, Florence wonders if a terrible secret from her past is about to come to light…
Florence is a great character, and one that I instantly warmed to. A resident at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly, she is quite set in her ways, and mostly just wants to be left alone and in peace. This goes against the wishes of those running Cherry Tree, who insist that Florence participate in the activities available. I fully felt Florence’s frustration at the situation. Used to doing her own thing, she doesn’t want to take part in the same old activities each week, and yet no one listens, assuming that they know what is best for her. That’s not to say that their intentions aren’t good, but there does seem to be the assumption that she’ll do what everyone else does, rather than treating her as an individual.
When a new resident arrives at the home, Florence is sure that it’s Ronnie Butler, a man she hasn’t seen for sixty years, in no small part because he drowned in 1953. Convinced that it’s him, she begins to investigate, with a little help from best friend, Elsie, and fellow resident, Jack. They make a rather unconventional mystery solving team, but I couldn’t help but love them. Florence struggles a little with her memory, and so it takes some time for the full story to come out – both what happened sixty years ago, as well as whether the new resident is who she thinks it is. It’s an intriguing mystery, and I loved how so many little snippets of information – even those that seemed inconsequential – became relevant by the end. This is a story that will have you puzzling over the information to work out what’s going on, and it’s as complex as any mystery novel.
The novel is told from the perspective of Florence, interspersed with chapters given over to other characters. Jumping between different points of view is, of course, nothing new, but it works so well here as we get to understand Florence from her own perspective, but also as others see her. I loved Handy Simon, who takes on the role of general fixer-upper at the home, and I thought that he was a great example of someone who hasn’t quite found their place in the world yet. It was also interesting to see another side to Miss Ambrose, second in command at the home, and one of those insisting that Florence has to become more involved with the other residents. Again, it’s interesting to see characters from different perspectives, including their own, as one person’s view never gives a full picture.
Joanna Cannon writes beautifully, with a gentle humour and great empathy for all her characters, who are so realistic that you feel as though you could meet them out and about. I thought that Florence in particular was brilliantly written, and shares the experience of someone whose faculties maybe aren’t quite running at the speed that they used to. This is a wonderful novel about friendship and flying in the face of others’ expectations to do the right thing, and I really enjoyed it.