Three Things About Elsie
Author: Joanna Canon
Publisher: The Borough Press, contemporary fiction
Joanna Canon is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling debut novel The Trouble With Goats And Sheep (2015), which has sold over 250,000 copies in Britain alone and has been published in 15 countries.
The novel was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize, shortlisted for The Bookseller Industry Awards 2017 and won the 2016 BAMB (Books Are My Bag) Reader Award. And barely are we into 2018 when her latest book, Three Things About Elsie, has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018. Joanna Cannon, in short, is a very flavoursome flavour of the moment, the recipient of large advances and fulsome adulation from her many fans.
To make matters worse, she seems a thoroughly likeable and admirable human being, having left school with just one O Level, returned to full time education in her 30s, qualified as a doctor and then moved across into psychiatry, where she has continued to work the wards of the mentally disturbed.
The Trouble With Goats And Sheep was loaded with positive messages and pleas for understanding and compassion for “the goats”, people who are not quite like the rest of us. This is all immensely worthy stuff and I genuinely respect her both for her intentions and for what she has achieved. But perversely, perhaps even irrationally, none of this makes me love her books.
In Three Things About Elsie, Canon takes us into another world of the marginalised, the elderly. Eighty-four-year-old Florence lives in Cherry Tree sheltered accommodation where her constant companion is the titular Elsie. (There are echoes of Goats And Sheep here: an enclosed community, two female narrators, division and unrest.)
Florence is a “difficult” character, stubborn and shouty. She is fiercely independent, never wanting to join in the repetitive and mindless activities laid on by the home administrator, Miss Ambrose. She is also dealing with the onset of dementia which muddles her nostalgic obsession with the past and trying to “sort things out”.
In this she is helped by Elsie “my best friend … always knows what to say to make me feel better”. There is little doubt whose side we are on – Florence is sparkly, witty, funny and perceptive. Miss Ambrose is the conventional face of authority whose only real power is the threat to send Florence to the “mortuary waiting-room” old people’s home, Greenbanks.
The bulk of the novel’s narration belongs to Florence, with occasional chapters from Miss Ambrose and her side-kick handyman, the slightly dysfunctional, mildly autistic Simon.
It is no surprise, given her background, that Canon writes perceptively and with insight and compassion about both incipient dementia and autism. But sometimes, just sometimes, I feel that the humour she uses to leaven these potentially rather heavy subjects, borders on the patronising.
For instance, in a generally very amusing scene, Miss Ambrose asks Simon to fill in a Personal Development Plan. Predictably, he struggles. Asked how he measures his success, he is flummoxed. “Even his Auntie Jean’s dog had a rosette. He had an O-Level in woodwork and a Blue Peter badge, and he had bought the blue Peter badge from a car-boot sale.”
The intention of this scene is undoubtedly to mock the inappropriateness of management speak; but the effect is to belittle Simon.
Like Goats And Sheep, Three Things About Elsie has at its heart a mystery rooted in the past. One day Cherry Tree welcomes a new resident, Gabriel Price. Suave and confident despite his age, Gabriel seems a good addition to the establishment. Except that from the moment she sees him, Florence is convinced that he is not who he claims to be. His real name, she is certain, is Ronnie Butler and he is a very nasty piece of work. There is only one problem: Ronnie Butler drowned in 1953.
Who Gabriel really is, what the truth is about the past and how Florence and Elsie go about unpicking it, is from then on the driving force of the novel. It is a journey of exploration and discovery that takes them to places, both physical and spiritual, they had long forgotten. As a page-turning thriller, it works well. I kept going long after I should have been doing something else!
Three Things About Elsie has many pleasures, foremost of which is the character of Florence herself, a delightfully feisty and determined octogenarian. It also has its weaknesses, in which I would include Canon’s inclination to sentimentality and preachiness. But for all that, this is a good-hearted book (a part of the new trend of “uplit”) by a compassionate and talented writer. As I intimated earlier on, I didn’t love it but I am equally sure that many, many people will. Which means you could always try it and decide for yourself.