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Beautiful, sensitive and evocative

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

I read this book late into the night, and really looked forward to getting back to it. You can’t really call it a classic page-turner, though it has a lovely twist or two. It’s beautifully imagined and the characters are portrayed with sensitivity and kindness.

The story is told from the point of view of 84-year-old Florence. The first thing she needs to remember is that Elsie is her best friend. The second thing is that Elsie “always knows what to say to make me feel better”, and the third thing — well, Florence can’t quite remember, because there are gaping holes in her memory. When we meet her, she’s lying on the floor of her sheltered flat, waiting to be found and wondering if a dark secret from the past is about to be revealed.

Florence is a “difficult” customer, who lives in the Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. Her greatest fear is that she will be moved to Greenbank, which is where people go to die.

The trouble is that Florence has started to display some classic symptoms of dementia.

She’s terrified of the newest resident, an old man who calls himself “Gabriel Price”. Florence recognises him immediately — his real name is Ronnie Butler. I love these names, by the way: Gabriel always evokes Thomas Hardy for me, and Ronnie, visions of criminals who’ve gone to the south of Spain to escape the British police. Elsie and Florence are beautiful names from the early/mid twentieth century. The cover, by the way, is stunning: it’s a Battenburg cake! All of which create a solid setting for the characters.

Elsie, always the voice of reason, says it can’t be the man Florence thinks he is, because Ronnie Butler died in 1953. Florence is not convinced; although she can’t get at the exact memory, she knows this man is dangerous. With the help of a fellow resident, Florence takes a journey — physical and spiritual — back to Whitby to uncover the truth.

The premise of Three Things About Elsie — a mystery from the past, investigated by someone whose memory is fractured by dementia — is similar to that of Emma Healey’s award-winning novel Elizabeth Is Missing, which I also really enjoyed.

The difference is that Joanna Cannon, who trained as a doctor, writes of the various indignities of old age with great insight and intelligence. Her characters have to insist on their individuality; as the young handyman at Cherry Tree says, “they all look the same”. Is Florence shouty and aggressive because she is demented, or because nobody listens to her? Cannon forces her readers to confront their prejudices about people who happen to be old.

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