Wednesday 23 January 2019

Much to enjoy in tender big-hearted tale about best friend double-act

Fiction: Three Things About Elsie, Joanna Cannon HarperCollins €14.99

Three Things About Elsie
Three Things About Elsie

Justine Carbery

When Joanna Cannon's debut The Trouble With Goats and Sheep hit the bookshelves in 2016, I was busy telling my bookish friends about this wonderful quirky new writer and her delightful sleuthing duo Grace and Tilly. To write a second novel following such overnight success must be daunting but Three Things About Elsie rises to the challenge. With its beautiful Battenberg jigsaw cover and its empathic portrayal of lifelong friendship, Cannon has once again hit the winning note. In fact, I think I love the best friend double act Flo and Elsie even better than the sleuthing Grace and Tilly.

Eighty-four-year-old Florence has been best friends with Elsie forever, relying on her kind words and sound advice over a lifetime of shared memories.

But now Flo lies injured on the floor of her sheltered accommodation at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly and as she waits for help, she tries to unravel memories and mysteries from the past.

Flo has a secret which she has kept from everyone, even herself, and her thoughts keep reverting to it now as she lies alone and injured on the floor.

All becomes clear in the end, but it is a tale Flo has to tell in her own way in order to understand it all.

Flo "can't find a memory I can trust" and lives in fear of being sent to Greenbank, a residential home for those no longer deemed to be capable of independent living, a sort of living tomb for those residents who have "run out of arguing" and lie defeated on perfectly made beds.

Through all of this it is Elsie who helps Florence navigate the minefield of memory loss and getting old, Elsie who helps her face the truth.

Daily life at Cherry Tree is disrupted with the arrival of a new resident, Gabriel Price, who bears a remarkable similarity to someone shady in Flo's past life - one Ronnie Butler, who supposedly drowned in 1953 - and she sets out to figure out why he has suddenly appeared and what he is up to.

With the help of Elsie and a charming widower-friend Jack, they embark on a quest to uncover the truth behind his real identity and to help Florence find the missing jigsaw pieces of her memory.

Images of the night Elsie's sister Beryl died float to the surface and Elsie encourages Flo to grab hold, remember and to try to forgive. We get the story from three different points of view; Flo's unreliable first-person narrative and from the points of view of two members of staff - Miss Ambrose, a supervisor, and the gentle handyman, Handy Simon.

They help us sift through the information and figure out what's true and what's not.

But it is Flo's voice which really stands out.

Cannon writes so well that you feel like you are eavesdropping on their private conversations and she makes you care so much about the characters that you want to reach out and hold them.

There is much to enjoy in this tender, big-hearted read about events that shape us, and lessons to learn about growing old and learning to forgive.

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