Second novels can be tricky things to read and, I’m sure, even more tricky to write. How to make good on the promise of an excellent debut – especially when that debut became a bestseller, a Richard &Judy pick and a lead fiction title for the publisher like Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats and Sheep did?
Fortunately Cannon hasn’t been phased by the limelight – or if she has she’s done a very good job of hiding it – because her second novel, Three Things About Elsie, is a brilliantly accomplished novel about ageing, memory, friendship and humanity that left me with ALL OF THE FEELS.
84-year-old Florence lies alone on the floor of her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be found, she looks back on her life and her long friendship with Elsie. Best friends since school, Elsie and Florence have done everything together, including keeping a terrible secret. But what does this have to do with the charming new resident Gabriel Price? Why is Florence so afraid of him? And why does he look like a man who died sixty years ago? As Florence is about to discover, there is so much more to anyone than the worst thing they have ever done.
One of the things I loved about Cannon’s first novel was her grasp of character. She’s worked as a doctor and specialised in psychiatry which really comes across in her books as her grasp of personality quirks is nuanced and rounded. None of her characters are perfect but all of them are wonderfully, painfully, heart-breakingly real. I particularly warmed to Jack, a former military man and one of Florence’s fellow inmates at Cherry Tree who takes it upon himself to befriend her and help work out the mystery of her past. I also liked Handy Simon, Cherry Tree’s handyman who, nearing his forties, is still trying to figure out his role in life and will discover that he has hidden talents and depths. And Florence herself, struggling with the slips between present and past, is wonderfully complex – at times difficult and argumentative, others perceptive and kind, she serves as a reminder that the elderly people around us are more than as we see them – they have lived, loved and lost throughout full and varied lives.
In tone, the novel reminded me of Emma Healy’s Elizabeth is Missing, another novel with an elderly and confused narrator carrying a deep secret at it’s heart – and fans of that book should definitely give Three Things About Elsie a read – but, at it’s heart this is a novel less about what happened in the Florence’s past and more about how the ripples of that have affected her present and led her to where and who she is now. It’s also a novel about the deep and abiding love found within deep friendship – Florence and Elsie’s relationship is beautifully and movingly portrayed and, when Jack becomes involved too, fantastically wry and amusing as well. Some moments had me laughing out loud, others with wet cheeks and red eyes.
To say too much about the plot would be to give far too much of the novel away but it’s both a heart-warming and heart-breaking story, filled with everyday reality, bittersweet memory, moments of joy and others of deep regret. Most of all though, it’s filled with humanity. Humanity practically oozes off every page – the fine threads that connect us all together, the stories we tell others and the stories we tell ourselves, the small lives that leave loud echoes and, most importantly of all, the long seconds that give us chance to make choices that define who we want to be. I could have underlined so many sentences and paragraphs that resonated with quiet wisdom – it’s one of those books that I just know will gestate inside me for a while, turning over in my brain. The sort of book that stays with you long after you finish the final page.
As I said earlier, all of the feels. Go and read it, go and read it now. Just have a packet of tissues handy and prepare to devour it in one sitting.
Three Things About Elsie is published by The Borough Press in hardback and ebook on 11 January 2018. My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley for providing an advance e-proof in return for an honest and unbiased review. I also read and reviewed Joanna’s first novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, here.