Elsie is Florence’s (Flo) best friend. The book is all about Flo and begins with her lying on the floor having had a fall, she’s waiting for someone to arrive, she lives in a self-contained apartment within a retirement village. She imagines who might come first, what they might say, the ambulance ride to the hospital.
Every few chapters are interspersed with a chapter that is labelled with the time, the first chapter is 4.48pm and the last chapter is 11.12pm. The chapters in between narrate the story of both the present and the past, about her time at Cherry Tree with Jack and Elsie, about staff members Miss Ambrose and Handy Simon, a few outings they take together, both the trio of Jack, Elsie and Flo and a group outing for a couple of days to Whitby.
I looked across the lounge, and into the past. It was more useful than the present. There were times when the present felt so unimportant, so unnecessary. Just somewhere I had to dip into from time to time, out of politeness.
Flo has plenty of complaints about what she is expected to participate in at Cherry Tree, but she’s also worried about being sent to Greenbank, she feels as though she’s under probation. Her observations about the names of these places and the names of many things, is insightful and adds a lightness to the narrative.
Another problem with Cherry Tree is there are no cherry trees. I’ve had this out with Miss Bissell on more than one occasion, but she won’t be told. ‘One of them must be,’ is all she can come up with, but none of them is. It’s the kind of name you give to these places though. Woodlands, Oak Court, Pine Lodge. They’re often named after trees for some reason. It’s the same with mental health units. Forests full of forgotten people, waiting to be found again…
It’s like the day room. It’s isn’t a day room, it’s an All The Bloody Time Room. Everybody will be in there now and it isn’t daytime.
And then there is the new resident who looks uncannily familiar to Flo, and makes her fearful and paranoid about events that occurred back in the 1950’s, only no one seems to be taking her seriously about her concerns, so she Jack and Elsie decide to take matters into their own hands.
Memory is like a character in the book, it’s is something that is sometimes there in abundance, stretching far back into the past and at other times, beyond reach.
‘You need to think about things for longer before you give up, Florence.
I didn’t answer, and we were stuck in a wordless argument for a while.
‘Do you remember taking sandwiches on holiday, when we were children? she said eventually. ‘Do you remember going to Whitby?’
I said I remembered but I wasn’t sure. She could tell straight away, because nothing much gets past Elsie.
‘Think, Florence,’ she said. ‘Think.’
I tried. Sometimes, you feel a memory before you see it. Even though your eyes can’t quite find it, you can smell it and taste it, and hear it shouting to you from the back of your mind.
‘Ham and tomato’ I said. ‘With boiled eggs!’
Three Things About Elsie is a delightful read, a book written with tremendous empathy and compassion by a writer who has been close to the elderly and listened, and seen them for who they are and have always been, that the bodily exterior and instances of confusion aren’t what defines them.
She portrays these characters with integrity and humour, I had the feeling often as I read that I was watching these scenes happen, so vividly are they drawn, so clear the voices and intentions of the characters. She creates a mystery that intrigues the reader, making me not want to put the book down, desperate to know what was going to happen next and always with that air of doubt, about what is real and what might be the confusion of an elderly woman. But never mind that, for as we read, we are right there with Flo, Jack and Elsie, moving on from one clue to the next, following them in their devilish escapades and hoping that all will be well in the end.
I’m not surprised this book is being adored and appreciated by so many readers, Joanna Cannon captures the soul of Flo and we recognise the vulnerability of ageing and only been seen for the deteriorating body and mind that isn’t who we are at all.
Three Things About Elsie has been long listed for the Women’s Prize For Fiction 2018. Click on the link to read about the 16 novels nominated.