Sunday 16 December 2018

Old age, memory and a mystery from the past


Three Things About Elsie

Joanna Cannon

HarperCollins, ­hardback, 464 pages, €18

Spectacular twist: Cannon’s second novel tackles old age
Spectacular twist: Cannon’s second novel tackles old age
Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

James Walton

In Three Things About Elsie, ­Joanna Cannon is faced with a tricky problem that may not earn her much sympathy from her peers. Her previous novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is now among the bestselling fictional debuts of recent years. So, how can she ­possibly follow it? Her solution turns out to be a cunningly successful one: by retaining many of the same elements, but giving them a very different framework.

Once again, for example, we're plunged into a community that has no choice but to be tight-knit (whatever the people in it might sometimes wish) and where a long-buried secret is about to be uncovered. Once again, a pair of close female friends - one of whom narrates most of the book in an appealingly idiosyncratic way - are determined to do the uncovering. This time, though, instead of a 1970s suburban cul-de-sac, the setting is a sheltered-accommodation home for the elderly in the present day; and, instead of a 10-year-old girl struggling to understand the adult world, the narrator is 84-year-old Florence who, with dementia approaching, is now struggling with that, too.

When we first meet Florence, she's lying on the floor of her flat after a fall. And it's from there that she sometimes remembers, and sometimes doesn't, the story of her life - a story she's been increasingly desperate to recall after recognising the home's newest resident, Gabriel Price, as a baddie from her past whose real name is Ronnie Butler. The trouble is that Ronnie drowned in 1953...

Luckily, her oldest friend Elsie is also in the home and also recognises Ronnie, who seems to have been responsible for the death of Elsie's sister that same year. As their investigations begin, another similarity to The Trouble with Goats and Sheep emerges: that, while the novel uses many of the conventions of the contemporary psychological thriller (timeshifts, different points of view, a fondness for thumping twists), its real interests lie elsewhere.

As a former psychiatrist, Cannon is both understandably fascinated by mental illness and able to portray it with affecting conviction. Now, Florence's dementia and the autism of the home's handyman join the many disorders suffered by the unfortunate inhabitants of that Seventies cul-de-sac. Three Things About Elsie also shares its predecessor's concern with how - and, often, how inadvertently - we make the decisions that shape our lives, and those of others.

Not surprisingly, the biggest new theme is old age, which Cannon tackles just as convincingly. At one point, Florence likens it to "waking up in another country". At another, she describes herself and Elsie as "two old ladies... watching the world happen without them". But along with the melancholy comes anger at how little control the elderly are allowed to have over their apparently irrelevant lives.

Happily, through all of this, Cannon's greatest strength remains firmly in place: her ability not merely to create compelling individual characters, but to trace the tangled connections between them in a way that explains how they act - and even who they've become.

True, some of her weaknesses are back as well. If a book sets itself up as a thriller - and for much of the time proves a pretty good one - it should probably bowl along a little more quickly, without quite so many paragraphs in which several sentences say more or less the same thing. Ideally, we should also be given fewer portentous if well-meaning little homilies that explain what we're reading - either by Florence's narration or in lines of dialogue like "no matter how long or short a time you are here, the world is ever so slightly different because you existed".

In the end, though, the novel is so irresistibly good-hearted, and Florence herself so captivating, that even these flaws feel like only the side effects of Cannon's winningly generous attitude to storytelling - and towards her central characters. Meanwhile, anybody who thought that the quasi-mystical climax of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was something of a cop-out will be pleased to know that here we get a proper denouement, complete with a spectacular twist. Now all Cannon has to do is write a third novel that can follow this one.

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